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Michael Pineda strikes out five in 2 2/3 scoreless innings

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda works out at Steinbrenner

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda works out at Steinbrenner Field on the morning of Feb. 20, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. - In evaluating Michael Pineda after two starts, it's probably best to do so on a curve. Or slider, as he refers to the pitch.

Pineda wasn't quite as dazzling Thursday against the Orioles' C-list traveling squad as he had been in his Grapefruit League debut a week earlier at Steinbrenner Field. With a fastball sitting around 90 mph and touching 93, according to the Yankees, Pineda didn't locate it with the same efficiency that he had against the Tigers.

The important takeaway from Thursday, however, was Pineda's increasing confidence in his breaking pitches, which he used on a variety of counts -- notably a 3-and-2 slider to whiff Quintin Berry in the third inning.

Berry, the Orioles' leadoff hitter for the day, is no Nick Markakis, but Pineda doesn't determine which players ride the bus from Sarasota. What he can control is staying afloat in the fifth starter derby, and he did that by striking out five in his 22/3 scoreless innings.

"You know he's feeling comfortable when he's throwing his slider for strikes to punch guys out,'' catcher Brian McCann said. "That's a pretty good indication that he's doing whatever he wants with the baseball.''

Pineda walked one and allowed three hits -- all singles -- but the first was a pop-up to leftfield that should have been caught by Alfonso Soriano, who inexplicably stopped short about two feet from where it landed. The last didn't make it out of the infield, when Derek Jeter plucked a grounder behind second base but couldn't deliver the running throw in time.

Judging Pineda on the boxscore at this stage still feels premature. The biggest question remains the health of his surgically repaired right shoulder, and he's reported no problems. Should he claim the No. 5 spot, he'll still have three more weeks to build up arm strength before taking his turn in the rotation. But Joe Girardi continues to stress fastball location for Pineda, and it wasn't consistent Thursday in the Yankees' 6-0 win.

"I don't make too much of it,'' Girardi said. "It's only his second start. But that's what you want to see. You want to see that command get better, the breaking ball continue to improve. I thought his slider and changeup were pretty good, and that's what helped him. He had the ability to get outs when he needed to.''

That's light years ahead of where Pineda has been since his 2012 spring training debut with the Yankees, when a mysterious weakness in his shoulder resulted in surgery to fix a torn labrum. Since then, he has been trying to shake the stigma of arriving as damaged goods -- and many other worse labels he has picked up since donning pinstripes. Pineda, 25, already has learned the hard way to take this one step at a time.

"The best thing is my shoulder is feeling good,'' he said. "I can pitch and compete and I'm happy with that.''

Pineda believes his fastball will pick up speed eventually, and he's confident in his secondary stuff. In terms of his body language on the mound, he behaves like a pitcher in control. He works quickly and decisively. That doesn't automatically translate into outs, but it tends to keep the game from spinning out of reach.

"I think he's figured some things out,'' Girardi said. "When you rehab, and you're sitting down here in Tampa, and you're not doing what you want to do, I think you have some time to think about some things. He's a young kid . . . I think he's grown up some, definitely.''

Pineda could have an edge in the No. 5 competition because the other candidates -- Vidal Nuño, David Phelps and Adam Warren -- all have the flexibility to be used in the bullpen. But Pineda also is facing an innings limit coming back from surgery. That's a problem the Yankees wouldn't mind having if it means that he is productive at the major-league level.

Said Girardi, "He's taking steps in the right direction.''

New York Sports