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Tuesday July 5th, 2022 5:29PM

Manny Bañuelos finally lives out Yankees dream

By The Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — When Manny Bañuelos reached the mound at Yankee Stadium on Friday night, many years after that dream seemed to have famously escaped him, catcher Jose Trevino offered a simple message.

“Hey man, welcome home,” Trevino recalled saying. “This is where you're supposed to be. This is where you are right now. Enjoy it.”

Formerly a touted New York Yankees prospect, Bañuelos finally got the chance to pitch in pinstripes 14 years after he first joined the organization and seven years after he was traded away. Following stops in Mexico and Taiwan, the 31-year-old left-hander pitched in the majors for the first time since 2019, throwing two innings in relief of Gerrit Cole in the Yankees' 13-0 win over the Detroit Tigers.

“This is amazing,” Bañuelos said. “This is huge for me. I’ve been waiting for this a long time.”

New York signed the talented Mexican pitcher weeks after his 17th birthday in 2008, and the weighty hopes of Yankee Universe quickly fell on his shoulders. He represented New York at the 2009 All-Star Futures Game and ranked highly on lists of promising minor leaguers. In 2011, closer Mariano Rivera declared Bañuelos the best pitching prospect he'd ever seen.

But then Bañuelos tore the UCL in his left elbow, prompting Tommy John surgery that cost him nearly two full seasons. He never got past Triple-A with the Yankees, who traded him to Atlanta in 2015.

He reached the majors that year with the Braves but was injured and ineffective. After three more seasons at Triple-A, he pitched 16 games for the White Sox in 2019 and floundered again.

Cast out of affiliated ball, he spent the past two summers with Taiwan's Fubon Guardians of the Chinese Professional Baseball League and played winter ball back home in Mexico. He also represented his home country at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

The goal was always to get back to the majors, and it was an easy choice to rejoin the Yankees this spring on a minor league deal when the chance arose. Finally healthy, he turned heads in spring training, then dominated with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Injuries opened a spot in the bullpen, and New York promoted Bañuelos to the big club May 26.

“I grew up as a Yankee fan,” he said. “When they gave me the opportunity to be here, it was great for me. I was very sad when I left, and then, too, you know, I’m very grateful with the team, with the organization, to give me that chance to come back.”

His arrival has coincided with a dominant stretch by New York's rotation, leaving little for the bullpen to do, but Bañuelos saw his chance coming Friday night. By the fifth inning, the Yankees had a massive lead — and Cole was working on a perfect game. If and when Cole's bid ended, Bañuelos figured the remaining mop-up work would be his.

Cole gave up two hits in the seventh, and the next inning manager Aaron Boone summoned Bañuelos.

He stopped behind the mound to soak in the moment before getting to work.

“I’ve been with a lot of different teams,” he said. "I’ve pitched in different countries. It was a great moment. I wanted to enjoy that moment before I started pitching. And I just said, thank God.”

He allowed a hit and struck out one while closing out a combined three-hitter with Cole, who ranked two spots ahead of him on MLB.com's Top 100 prospect list in 2012 — Cole was 11th and Bañuelos 13th.

“That was the coolest part of the night,” Cole said.

Bañuelos' wife and daughter were in the stands, and he's keeping the first ball he pitched Friday as a souvenir. He plans to put it on a shelf between balls he had autographed by Rivera and Derek Jeter during his first stint with the franchise.

“To pitch here in Yankee Stadium in this uniform, this is amazing,” he said. “I don’t know if somebody had this history, but I don’t think so. Because, you know, I think everybody knows about me, about what happened 10-12 years ago. I’ve said before, it’s been a long journey to make this goal.”

The accomplishment isn't lost on teammates. Trevino is less than two weeks removed from his own pinch-me pinstripe moment, when he delivered a walk-off hit on his late father's birthday at Yankee Stadium — just as his Bronx Bombers-loving dad used to talk about when they practiced in the backyard.

“Stories like that, those go a long ways not only for the guys, but for kids around the world,” Trevino said of Bañuelos. “Maybe you aren’t where you’re supposed to be right now, but later on, that doesn’t mean that you can’t come back.”

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