Michael Pineda was paid last season by the Twins to basically hang out in the weight room and visit the trainer’s room.
While Pineda navigated through rehabilitation following Tommy John elbow surgery, the Twins made a $2 million investment in hopes that he would, once healthy, resemble the up-and-coming pitcher he was with the Yankees earlier in the decade.
That didn’t make Pineda enjoy his season of semi-solitude any more.
“It’s a little frustrating because we love to play, love to pitch,” he said. “The last year I had to stay with my rehab, so I understand the situation. But love to help the team.”
So he sweated, made trips to Florida for rehab, worked through a throwing program and reported to 2019 camp ready to contribute.
Sunday, 633 days since his last major league start on July 5, 2017, marked the culmination of his work. And it was the day the Twins’ patience was rewarded.
Pineda was a force, giving up one hit during an abbreviated stint as the Twins rolled through the Indians 9-3 to win the rubber game of a season-opening series with the three-time defending AL Central champions.
“Today is different,” Pineda said. “Today, I had my opportunity to go to play with my teammates and we won the game. So it is a big day for me and everyone here.”
The 6-7, 260-pound Dominican pummeled the strike zone with all of his pitches while tossing four shutout innings that undoubtedly made the Twins feel like their investment could pay off big-time. Pineda needed only 40 pitches to get through four innings but came out firing 21 of his first 29 pitches over the plate.
“Obviously, he pitched great,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “If you watched the game, he was moving very quickly through these innings.”
Pineda gave up one hit and walked one while striking out five. The righthander was pulled as part of a prearranged piggybacking pairing with lefthander Martin Perez. Despite throwing five innings in each of his last two outings of spring training, Pineda was pulled after four superlative innings.
“The last week in spring training, we sat down and talked about it with the manager,” Pineda said. “I knew the plan today, so it was no surprise for me. We knew it was going to happen, you know?”
At least he made it a tough decision for his manager.
“Without that type of unselfishness, we can’t do the things that we want to do and we can’t function,” Baldelli said. “So I have to commend him from my end and my staff’s end, [and] for every guy in that clubhouse. It was incredible how that worked, and that’s not an easy thing to generally work through.”
Pineda left with the Twins leading 3-0, two runs coming in the fourth when Byron Buxton hit a hanging slider from Carlos Carrasco to left for a two-out, two-run double. The Twins broke the game open in with a five-run fifth, which included a two-run homer by Nelson Cruz, the team’s first home run of the season.
Perez took over in the fifth and earned the victory, giving up three runs over 3⅔ innings — Carlos Santana’s three-run double with two out in the eighth inning broke up the Twins’ shutout bid. But the day was about Pineda, who combined with fellow starters Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi to hold Cleveland to one run over 17⅔ innings.
After Pineda earned $2 million in 2018, the Twins will pay him $8 million for 2019. That could be a bargain in a sport in which average pitchers can make several million more in a season.
“I feel so happy today,” Pineda said. “I mean, a year and a half of no pitching. Today was my time to pitch, and I’m happy I threw the ball pretty good. I’m happy for it.”