Twenty-one games into their season, the Seattle Mariners may have discovered the most valuable weapon this side of Felix Hernandez – Michael Pineda.
The rookie right-hander continued to make the American League his own, shutting out Oakland for six innings in pitching the Mariners to their second win in a row, 4-0, Friday night at Safeco Field.
Adam Kennedy continued his hot hitting, Jack Cust drew his fourth bases-loaded walk in April and the Mariners bullpen worked the last three innings for the win.
And still, this was a Pineda Production. The rookie, who was a long shot to make the team out of spring training, did so – and where would the Mariners be without him?
Well, they’re 8-13 now, and Pineda has won three of their last six victories.
At 22, he leads the team in wins and earned run average (1.78) and is second in innings (25) and strikeouts (21) to the man he follows like around like a pup, Hernandez.
“We talk baseball, hitters, ball parks – everything,” Pineda said.
And if he could have one of Felix’s pitches, which would it be?
“His changeup,” Pineda said. “Mine is OK, his is amazing. It breaks straight down sometimes.”
Without Felix’s change, Pineda used a fastball that topped out at 97 mph, a mid-80s slider and, yes, his own changeup. In six innings, the Athletics managed five hits, and Pineda struck out five.
“Michael has such a strong focus. He doesn’t let things beat up on him,” manager Eric Wedge said. “You have to keep pitching, and that’s the most important thing. He has a great arm and he’s aggressive with his secondary stuff.”
A night after Hernandez beat Oakland, 1-0, it looked for awhile as if the Mariners were going to force Pineda to try and do the same.
When Kennedy, filling in for Justin Smoak, singled in the second inning, he came around to score on Jack Wilson’s two-out single to give Pineda a 1-0 lead.
Until the fifth inning, that was all they gave him – on offense.
Defensively, the Mariners played well behind Pineda, saving him a fifth-inning run when first baseman Kennedy fielded a sharp ground ball and fired home to catcher Miguel Olivo, who slapped a tag on Kevin Kouzmanoff.
Close play, but it went Seattle’s way, and it was the closest Oakland came to solving Pineda.
“He had to work hard early, but he worked through it,” Wedge said. “He stayed poised, made adjustment and got us six innings.”
Once Pineda got through the fifth inning, the Mariners broke loose in their half of the inning and, yes, Kennedy was right in the middle of it. Wilson singled and, with one out, the Athletics bullpen walked Chone Figgins, Michael Saunders and Cust to make it 2-0.
That brought up Kennedy, the 35-year-old journeyman who has played with the Angels, Cardinals, Athletics and Nationals.
Kennedy singled up the middle, driving in two runs. A reserve when the season began, he’s now the only .300 hitter on the team – he’s batting .333 – has two home runs and five RBI.
Oh, and one other thing Wedge likes.
“Adam has the heartbeat of a champion,” Wedge said.
And still, this was all about Pineda, who got relief work from David Pauley, Aaron Laffey, Jamey Wright and Brandon League to preserve the win – and the Mariners’ second shut out in a row.
At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, the Mariners aren’t even certain he’s stopped growing, but they don’t believe he’s begun to tap his potential. The fastball enables him to make a few mistakes, and his command with it has been superb.
Pineda’s slider has bite, and the changeup is improving – a couple he threw Friday night were Felix-like.
Still, he doesn’t know the hitters he’s facing, hasn’t learned to pace himself.
That hasn’t stopped him from becoming a fan favorite in a month where there haven’t been that many fans on hand to watch his two Safeco Field starts.
What those who have watched have seen:
Amongst major league rookies, Pinedia is tied for first in wins with Zach Britton (Baltimore), first in ERA (1.78), first in opponent batting average (.202), second in innings (25.1) and second in strikeouts (21).
Four starts doesn’t make a full month, let alone a season, but Pineda is one of those pitchers who was a gifted athlete first, and his size and arm impress everyone who watches him.
Like Hernandez a night earlier, Pineda’s pitching almost makes up for the Mariners offense, which managed seven hits in this one – all of them singles, with two each for Ichiro Suzuki, Kennedy and Wilson.
They added seven walks, however, and those contributed to all four of their runs. It’s the patience Wedge and hitting coach Chris Chambliss are getting up and down the Seattle lineup, and it’s given them many of their scoring opportunities.
Cust, for instance, walked twice against Oakland, forcing in a run in that fifth inning rally. The Mariners designated hitter is batting only .179 so far, and has seven RBI.
Four of those have come in on bases-loaded walks.