KISSIMMEE, Fla. - It was not the kind of return to the mound that Manny Banuelos envisioned. But the young lefthander still preferred that to the alternative -- not being able to get out there at all.
And Banuelos experienced plenty of that during the previous two years.
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"I'm very happy," Banuelos said after allowing three runs and two hits in two-thirds of an inning Saturday in the Yankees' 9-6 victory over the Astros at Osceola County Stadium. "The [result] wasn't like I wanted, but the best thing is I feel healthy and I felt very strong that inning."
Making his first appearance in game action since May 18, 2012, the one-time crown jewel pitching prospect of the Yankees' organization allowed the first three batters he faced in the fifth inning to reach base, culminating in Chris Carter's three-run homer.
Banuelos struck out George Spring and retired Jesus Guzman on a grounder to third before Joe Girardi replaced him with two outs.
"For being the first time after surgery in two years, I think that's awesome for me," said Banuelos, whose fastball, according to one opposing team scout, was clocked at 92-94 mph. The scout said the Yankees should be "encouraged" by the outing.
"Had a comfort level with his arm strength and arm speed on his pitches," he said. "No reason to think he can't rebound."
It has been an arduous road back for Banuelos, who turns 23 Thursday.
Three years ago, he was the story of spring training for the Yankees, dazzling with a fastball that peaked at 97 mph.
None other than Mariano Rivera did his part to hype the lefthander, calling him "the best pitching prospect" he'd ever seen.
But injuries soon derailed Banuelos. After an OK camp in 2012, he started feeling pain in his left elbow and didn't pitch again after May 18. Tommy John surgery followed in October 2012, costing him all of last season.
Now, though he's not a front-runner for a rotation or bullpen spot coming out of this camp, the Yankees see him as being able to provide help at some point this season, assuming his elbow holds up.
"If he was to help us this year, I can't tell you exactly how it would be because we're going to look at everything," Girardi said before the game. "But we think he's got a high ceiling."
Afterward, Girardi echoed the theme of the day.
"I was happy for him he got out there and he threw some strikes," he said. "It's been a long road back and he had a smile on his face. I think you appreciate it a lot more when you lose something for a while. You appreciate it a lot more when you come back. We have all the confidence in the world he's going to march ahead. He just has to get out there and pitch."
Francisco Cervelli, who grew close to Banuelos as the two spent time rehabbing together much of last season at the team's minor-league complex in Tampa, caught Saturday and smiled almost as much as the pitcher.
"I'm so happy," Cervelli said. "I know he's been working so hard because we worked together at the complex and I know the frustration and everything. He was so good. He had the speed. He just needs the confidence and he'll be back . . . In my opinion, I don't care about the results, I just care about how he feels."
Banuelos said the adrenaline rush on the mound was unfamiliar at first.
"I almost forgot that," he said.
What he hasn't forgotten are the feelings from 2011 when the majors appeared well within his grasp.
"That year [spring training] was awesome, but after that, in 2012, I had this thing, but that wasn't my fault," Banuelos said. "I still worked hard. But things happen. I worked to get back on the mound. Now I'm back."