FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Joel Pineiro was midway through his first bullpen session last week when a stray ball from the other side of the green divider that splits the bullpen rolled past him. He turned around and saw, leaning alone against the cyclone fence at the rear of the pen, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, his arms folded.
"I said to myself, 'That's Theo,' Pineiro said with a laugh. "I'm thinking, maybe I should have just stayed [facing] this side. But obviously, it was going to happen one of these days. I guess it was good to get it out of the way early."
For all the eyes that are on Daisuke Matsuzaka this spring, there may be no Red Sox pitcher this spring who comes under closer scrutiny -- the pun is intended -- than Joel (pronounced jo-ELL) Pineiro, perhaps the most unlikely candidate to be auditioning as closer for a team with a $160 million payroll.
Of all American League pitchers who threw at least 150 innings last season, only one had an earned run average over 6. That was Pineiro, whose 6.36 ERA was the worst in the majors. Only two AL pitchers this decade who threw 150 or more innings had a higher ERA: Jose Lima (6.99 for Kansas City in 2005) and David Cone (6.91 for the Yankees in 2000).
And no one thought of inviting Lima or Cone to camp the following year to audition as closer.
Asking Pineiro to do so now is almost as improbable as if the Red Sox had asked him 10 years ago, when he was here playing for Edison Junior College and his only sniff of the big leagues came when he sat on the bench in an exhibition game against the Twins.
"I was down at the beach one night having some dinner," Pineiro recalled, "and I ran into Mo Vaughn at a gas station in his white Mercedes. I'm thinking, 'Holy crap.' And then three, four years later, I was facing him."
The setting he returns to here bears little resemblance to the one he left in 1997, after he was Florida Junior College Player of the Year and the Mariners drafted him on the 12th round after seeing him in a tryout camp. The area itself has undergone a remarkable growth spurt -- "half the stuff here wasn't here then," he said -- and Pineiro is now a major league veteran trying to reinvent himself at age 28, a la Dennis Eckersley, from bottomed-out starter into last-call stopper.
Non-tendered by the Mariners, who saw his ERA climb by nearly a run in each of the last three seasons, the Sox signed Pineiro to a one-year, $4 million deal (the club holds an option for 2008), seeing enough in his dozen relief appearances last September (15 2/3 IP, 10 ER, 5.74 ERA, 13 Ks) to believe he warranted a shot. In a market that had exploded for starting pitchers (former Seattle teammate Gil Meche received a $55 million, five-year deal from the Royals), Pineiro had elicited little interest. Giving this a chance wasn't so much a gamble for him as reaching for a potential lifeline out of a handful of short straws.
"One thing we saw in our scouting evaluations," pitching coach John Farrell said, "was that in short stints, his velocity got back up to the mid-90s, and the action and life to his pitches increased in short stints. He's a very experienced major league pitcher and has shown over time an ability to handle tight situations.
"I think short stints and an aggressive mentality fits well for him. It's a change in role that No. 1, he's accepting of. He throws strikes with three pitches, he's got some late action. We feel like this is the right spot."
Pineiro agrees it's worth a try, especially after his pitching coach in Seattle, Rafael Chaves, last summer encouraged him to drop his arm slot and attack hitters from a different angle.
"The first couple of times, I'm telling you, it felt like I was dragging [my arm] like [Chad] Bradford," Pineiro said, referring to the one time Sox submariner now with the Orioles. "My arms and fingers felt like they were along the ground. But after the first couple of times, it started to feel a little more normal. We'll see how it feels when it takes hold in a full year."
Yesterday, after throwing live batting practice against David Ortiz and Wily Mo Peña, Pineiro stopped and spoke for a few minutes with Luis Tiant. Yes, Pineiro said as he jogged away, he knows who El Tiante is.
Tiant said that Pineiro had asked him to watch him earlier in camp.
"I think his problem is he gets the ball up too much," Tiant said. "He's got to keep the ball down. He's got good stuff, a pretty good slider, his sinker is pretty good. We talked about how there are a lot of grips you can use to make the ball move. You get the ball to move more, you're going to break a lot of bats.
"And his changeup is pretty good. He throws it maybe too hard, but maybe he can throw one that's 5 miles [per hour] less than his fastball, then another one that's half the speed of his fastball."
To be an effective closer, Pineiro doesn't need as wide an assortment of pitches he had as a starter. Fastball, slider, and the occasional changeup may get the job done.
There are some back home in his native Puerto Rico who probably wouldn't mind if he resurrected his old "drop ball," too. That's what they called the big bending curve back when Gil Pineiro, Joel's father, pitched. The elder Pineiro was good enough growing up to attract the attention of the scouts -- the Cleveland Indians were prepared to offer him a contract for $1,500. But that's when Joel entered the picture, in a manner of speaking.
"My father got my mother pregnant when she was 17," Pineiro said. "My grandfather said, 'You ain't going anywhere, you're taking care of your baby. You got a job, you have to stay at your job.' "
That job was loading boxes to be shipped for
"All the time, he'll ask me, 'Did you run, did you workout?' " Pineiro said. "He'll watch the game on TV and say, 'Why don't you do this or try this?' I say, 'You go out there and do it.' "
Pineiro tells this story with obvious affection. He welcomes the advice of his father, just as he solicited input from Tiant and is open to suggestions from Farrell.
"I don't want to say I'm going to go out there and beat everybody else," he said, "because if I do, I think I might put too much pressure on myself and try too hard. I just want to be able to help this team, with the ball in my hand, win some games."
In the end, no one is more alone than the closer, the ball in his hand, the general manager looking over his shoulder.