TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Pineda chuckled and flashed a wide grin as his mind replayed those last three pitches of the evening: the sharp, biting sliders that zipped past Miguel Cabrera, the two-time reigning American League Most Valuable Player Award winner.
"I had good focus tonight," Pineda said. "I showed Michael Pineda."
On a crisp, cool night at George M. Steinbrenner Field, Pineda was feeling the best that he ever has wearing a Yankees uniform. He gave his employers plenty to be encouraged about, striking out four batters in a two-inning relief performance.
"We liked what we saw," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I don't want to make too much of it, but I've said all along that he looked different, what we've seen this spring compared to a couple of springs ago. The ball coming out of his hand, I thought he'd cleaned up his mechanics a lot. This is a good step."
Ambling to the mound with a loose, bouncy gait for the fifth inning, the 6-foot-7 Pineda first glared in to Austin Jackson and quickly dispatched the Detroit speedster with a three-pitch strikeout, freezing Jackson looking at a curveball.
Steve Lombardozzi fought a six-pitch at-bat to produce a ground-ball single, then was erased as Pineda got Nick Castellanos to bounce into a fielder's choice. Pineda then sent Danny Worth back to the bench on another three-pitch strikeout, getting Worth to wave at a breaking ball.
"Every time he steps on the mound in the big leagues, he's been getting awkward swings, so I don't think that that's anything out of the ordinary," said catcher Brian McCann. "I think the thing I was impressed about was him pounding the zone with all of his pitches. He struck a guy out on a 0-2 slider. It was really encouraging."
With his fastball velocity flickering between 91 and 93 mph and his slider ticking in the low 80s, Pineda may have been even sharper in his second inning of work. He worked the count to 2-2 against Rajai Davis, who struck out in a seven-pitch at-bat, and Tyler Collins lifted a 1-1 pitch for a harmless flyout.
Pineda's best showdown of the night was up next, with Cabrera digging in. Pineda uncorked a fastball that sailed high, then snapped off three straight sliders -- one that Cabrera took for a strike, one that he waved at low and away, and the last that he offered a half-swing at before dropping his bat.
"It's a good test," Pineda said. "I faced him before. I know he's a really good hitter, and I tried to make a good adjustment to make a good pitch and get an out."
The Yankees hope they can see more tantalizing sequences like that in the future. They've had precious few moments like this to savor since holding their breath and pulling the trigger on a mega-deal with the Mariners back in January 2012, a transaction that has not worked out swimmingly for either side.
Once the Yanks' top prospect, Jesus Montero is no longer deemed a catcher in the Mariners' eyes and reported to camp 40 pounds overweight this spring, severely dimming Seattle's hopes for him. Counter that with the fact that no one in the Yankees family has forgotten that Pineda still has yet to throw a single regular-season pitch for them.
Pineda waged his own battles with the training-room scale over the last few years, spending most of his first spring with the Yankees struggling to manufacture velocity. The Yankees grew more concerned as camp went on, and their worst fears were realized in April 2012, when Pineda went under the knife for right labrum surgery.
Progress on that long road back has been slow but steady for Pineda, taking place on a lot of sun-baked diamonds in Tampa and a Minor League tour that was cut short last August out of an abundance of caution, just so he could bank on finishing the year healthy.
"I feel better right now. I'm feeling more comfortable," said Pineda, who reported to camp back at his Seattle playing weight of 260. "I know I had surgery before. Right now, I'm staying here and pitching in the game. And that makes me happy."
Pineda shrugged when he was asked if some fans might have forgotten about him, but he represents a wild card for the Yankees at this point. If he approaches anything like his form from three years ago (173 K's in 171 innings, 3.74 ERA), and Friday's outing hinted at it, the Yankees have hope that they still may 'win' the trade in the end.
"We all saw what he did in 2011," McCann said. "He came on the scene and he was an All-Star. He's an uncomfortable at-bat. You're not standing in the box excited to face him."