Manny Banuelos was wearing a Yankees insignia over his heart Wednesday night, his name etched over a locker in the corner of the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.
Fourteen years ago, this wouldn’t have been a surprise — in fact, anything less than this would have been a little startling — but now, at 31, seemingly a million teams and a few countries removed from the 17-year-old phenom the Yankees signed out of Mexico in 2008, the tableau was nothing short of mesmerizing.
“It’s been a long journey to make it here,” he said. “But finally, I did it, and I’m really excited.”
On Wednesday, Banuelos was part of the Yankees’ taxi squad making the trip to Tampa Bay to play the Rays.
On Thursday, he was added to the roster. His smile lit up the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field.
“It’s big,” Banuelos said. “Everybody knows the story.”
A slew of recent injuries have created an opportunity for the sort of baseball comeback story people write movies about. Banuelos was 0-2 with a 2.35 ERA in 30 2/3 innings with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
With injuries to Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman and, most recently, Jonathan Loaisiga, the Yankees are in dire need of bullpen arms. Enter Banuelos, the lefty arm that was once part of the highly-touted Killer Bs — Bañuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman — and who rose to become the No. 29 prospect in baseball before his career was waylaid by Tommy John surgery.
Banuelos struggled after the procedure, more or less losing two years and a few miles per hour on a fastball that, at its best, clocked in the upper-90s. He was eventually released by the Yankees, picked up by Atlanta, where he made his major-league debut in 2015 and did well over his first three starts, but he struggled in his next few appearances before getting sidelined again by bone chips in his elbow.
He bounced around the minors, eventually briefly pitching in the majors again with the White Sox, before playing in Mexico and Taiwan. Then, the unexpected: The Yankees, the team of his youth, signed him and invited him to spring training.
“When I got the chance to sign here, I didn’t think about it — I said, ‘Yeah, I want to [be with] the Yankees and I want to make the big-league team,’ ” Banuelos said. “I did my best in spring training. I always believed in myself. It’s a long season and all I’ve got to do is pitch well and wait for this moment.”
Of course, there are a lot of unknowns: Will he get his chance to pitch, and will he succeed? But Banuelos has spent 14 years betting on himself, allowing his career to take him from city to city and country to country in an attempt to reclaim what once seemed so sure.
“There are a lot of emotions for me right now,” he said. “It’s been a long journey to make it here but finally I did it and I’m really excited . . .
“I’ve been consistent. I’ve been working a lot to be consistent on the mound and the goal is to stay healthy and I’ve been doing well with that. I have a lot of confidence pitching. That’s been helping a lot, getting confidence, and honestly, I’m so, so excited to be here. I can’t wait to be out there and do my best to help this team.”
He will do so wearing No. 68 on his back – Betances’ old number. Banuelos said he plans to text his friend to let him know the ending – or is it a new beginning? – to his story.
With Anthony Rieber in St. Petersburg, Fla.