TAMPA, Fla. -- It had been nearly two years since Michael Pineda stood on the mound at Steinbrenner Field, and in 2012, it was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons. He left with a shoulder injury that has prevented him from throwing a regular-season pitch for the Yankees.
But early indications, and it is early, continue to be promising for a comeback.
How much was Joe Girardi looking forward to Friday night, when Pineda was scheduled to make his 2014 debut?
"Pineda? In a game? A lot," Girardi said Friday afternoon before the Yankees' 3-2 win over the Tigers. "Because everything I've seen so far is positive and I want it to continue to go that direction, so I'm anxious to see it."
Pineda proved worthy of the excitement, striking out four in two scoreless innings against the Tigers. "Very impressed," one veteran scout said. "The Yankees should be pumped."
And Yankees catcher Brian McCann was. "His slider was pretty much unhittable,'' he said.
Said Pineda, "I thought I threw the ball great tonight. First time in a real game [in a while] and my command was perfect and my slider and my changeup too. I'm happy with that.''
Pineda, 25, whose fastball sat at 91-93 mph, according to scouts, entered in the fifth and struck out Austin Jackson looking on three pitches.
Steve Lombardozzi followed with a single to left on a 2-and-2 pitch, but Pineda got Nick Castellanos to ground into a 6-4 force play that likely would have been a double play had Brian Roberts made a better relay throw. Pineda struck out Danny Worth on three pitches to end the inning.
"I think there's a lot of confidence in there and I think he feels good," Girardi said afterward. "We like what we saw. I don't want to make too much of it, but I've said all along, he looks different this spring compared to what we saw a couple springs ago."
Pineda fanned two in the sixth, including Miguel Cabrera swinging on two sliders. "Good life to the fastball," a talent evaluator said. "Inconsistent slider but some really good ones."
In his first spring training with the Yankees in 2012 after being acquired in the offseason from the Mariners, Pineda struggled in the early going, with his velocity rarely topping 90 mph.
Then came his March 30 start against the Phillies, when he exited complaining of arm and shoulder soreness. Asked to identify the area bothering him, he pointed behind his right shoulder, immediately sending off alarms inside the organization.
A torn labrum was diagnosed in April. Surgery followed.
Pineda returned midway through last season, making starts with Class A Tampa, Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The 6-7, 260-pound Pineda arrived at camp a month ago in shape -- a contrast with 2012, when he irritated many in the organization by showing up overweight -- and declared himself set for the upcoming competition for the job of fifth starter.
"I'm feeling 100 percent right now," he said. "My body is in the perfect shape. I'm ready to go.''
Pineda is competing with Vidal Nuño, David Phelps and Adam Warren for the rotation spot, and the Yankees have publicly said they have no favorite. Privately, however, they hope Pineda can recapture his form from the first half of 2011, when he looked like one of the next superstar pitchers.
If that pitcher emerges -- the one who went 8-5 with a 2.58 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in his first 17 starts -- it will give the Yankees quite a weapon. "This," Girardi said, "is a good step."