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The Yankees need “Big Mike,” to be “Iron Mike”

On Mother’s Day, Yankees starter Michael Pineda dominated the Baltimore Orioles in what he called the best performance of his career. Against one of the most potent offenses in baseball, Pineda recorded 16 strikeouts and no walks in seven innings of work, tossing the sixth game of at least 15 strikeouts in team history and emphatically staking his claim as the Yankees’ No. 1 starter. No Yankee ever had struck out more than 13 in a walkless effort and the 16 punch-outs tied him with David Wells and David Cone for the second most in a single game in franchise history. Ron Guidry struck out 18 on June 17, 1978, against the California Angels.

Pineda became just the 22nd pitcher since 1914 to strike out 16 or more and not walk a batter, and the last major-league pitcher to do so was Johan Santana on Aug. 19, 2007. At 26 years old, Pineda also became the youngest pitcher with a 16-strikeout, no-walk game since a 22-year-old Mark Prior on June 26, 2003. In the process, Pineda improved to 5-0 on the season, while posting a 2.72 ERA and 10.49 K/9 in 46 1/3 innings. His 1.93 FIP is also best in the majors.

The towering righty, dubbed “Big Mike,” is 7-0 in his last nine starts dating back to last September, with at least five strikeouts and no more than one walk in each of those games – a feat only matched by only two other pitchers in the last 100 years: Bret Saberhagen in 1994 and Curt Schilling in 2002. Pineda currently leads all pitchers in WAR and he has an extraordinary 54-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has actually gotten better by 10 percentage points, relative to last season. Only Danny Salazar of the Cleveland Indians is showing a bigger step forward dating to last year so far in the American League.

Pineda first joined the Yankees in January of 2012, when the team sent then-top prospect Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners in a trade that seems like eons ago and one that may turn into one of the all-time lopsided deals. Pineda had just come off a solid rookie campaign, where he made the All-Star team and posted a 9-10 record with a 3.74 ERA. But the Yankees are only now reaping the benefits after a labrum tear sidelined him for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He was also charged with driving under the influence in the summer of 2012, and earned a 10-game suspension last season for doctoring baseballs with pine tar during a game in Boston.

The burley right-hander was limited to just 13 starts last year due to a shoulder strain, but he showed flashes of brilliance in that small sample size, pitching to a 1.79 ERA, a 2.71 FIP, and a 8.4 K/BB ratio. Pineda showed plenty of promise with Seattle back in 2011, but he’s a completely different pitcher now with the Yankees. He is more mature, has developed his changeup and has been consistent in throwing strikes. Since 2014, Pineda has posted a 2.1 percent walk rate, which ranks as the second best among starting pitchers. Only Phil Hughes has been better, but Pineda has been able to do this despite dealing with reduced velocity, likely as a result of the surgery. Pineda averaged nearly 97 mph on his fastball back in April 2011. Last April, he was topping out at 93.

He’s pounding the zone with his fastball to get ahead in the count—he’s throwing first-pitch strikes 67 percent of the time, good for 13th-best in the league, according to FanGraphs. Ironically, the blazing four-seam fastball that appealed the Yankees to Pineda is pretty much gone from his arsenal – he actually hasn’t even thrown a single four-seamer according to His cutter has basically completely replaced his traditional fastball and he has thrown the pitch at a 53.97 percent clip. He has also shown increased confidence in his changeup. During his rookie campaign he only threw the pitch six percent of the time, but he’s more than doubled that rate this season, using his change 13.79 percent of the time and it’s become a real weapon against lefties.

“The movement he gets on his pitches, he’s able to create pitches you don’t get to see every night,” said catcher Brian McCann, who had a front-row seat behind the plate for Pineda’s record-setting day. “You can’t duplicate a guy who’s 6-8, throwing cutters and a slider like that, and a great changeup.”

With Masahiro Tanaka back on the disabled list and always a question mark anyway, and the uneven output of the rest of the Yankees’ rotation, Pineda’s emergence as one of the most dominant starters in the AL could not have come at a better time. Even though the Yankees have plenty of rotation problems, they may have the fewest in the AL East. But a rotation fill of Adam Warrens, Chase Whitleys and Chris Capuano’s can only take a team so far. They do have some reinforcements coming, as Capuano started Tuesday for Triple-A in perhaps his final rehab tune-up and Ivan Nova just threw three simulated innings in Tampa with the hopes of returning in June.

The presence of one or both should free Whitley or Warren to help a bullpen overtaxed by too few innings from the rotation. But make no mistake, nobody expects the Yankees to go as far as Nathan Eovaldi or an aging C.C. Sabathia can carry them. Pineda, who has compiled a 2.26 ERA since 2014, a figure that ranks third, behind Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw, will have to do the carrying and the only thing holding him back is health.

Pineda has tossed just 293 2/3 innings in the big leagues and 171 of those innings came in 2011. Sunday afternoon was just his 20th start since 2011 and last season his longest stretch of consecutive starts was nine. One of baseball’s great truths is that injured pitchers get injured again. However, if Pineda can continue on this pace and take the ball every fifth day, Cy Young contention is more than possible and so are the playoffs for the Bronx Bombers.

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