Last updated: April 03. 2014 1:48AM - 2413 Views
By - psokoloski@timesleader.com

Pitcher Manny Banuelos, left, talks with catcher Pete O'Brien during New York Yankees spring training camp Feb. 22 in Tampa, Fla.
Pitcher Manny Banuelos, left, talks with catcher Pete O'Brien during New York Yankees spring training camp Feb. 22 in Tampa, Fla.
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It was only a short step in a long and tedious recovery process. And it only happened for a time or two.

But it made Manny Banuelos as elated as if he’d just struck out the side in the World Series.

Because when his fastball hit 95 mph on a radar gun in minor league spring training, it told him he was on his way to regaining his old form.

“It’s about getting confidence,” Banuelos said.

It’s about getting back to where he started.

That place is on the mound as a starting pitcher and prized prospect in the New York Yankees organization, a hat Banuelos once wore with pride.

That was before the elbow injuries.

“Right now, I’m trying to forget that,” Banuelos said.

Who could blame him?

Banuelos was once the biggest star of the Yankees minor league system, rising so fast he was right on the verge of making the majors.

He represented the Yankees at the Futures Game in 2009. He was rated as the organization’s sixth-best prospect before the start of 2010. He turned heads in major league spring training in 2011 and won the team’s J.D. Dawson Award given to the best rookie in camp. He struck out 125 batters in 129 2/3 innings while pitching in Double-A and Triple-A that season.

And when he made his debut for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Banuelos struck out eight top minor leaguers of the Phillies in five innings.

Then everything went terribly wrong for him.

He started six games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the start of the 2012 season and has 22 strikeouts in 24 innings. But he knew something wasn’t right.

“I remember when I threw, I could feel a little pain,” Banuelos said.

Doctors believed Banuelos had a bone bruise. Later, they discovered he had ligament damage in his elbow.

Banuelos had Tommy John surgery Oct. 4, 2012, and missed all of last season recovering.

No wonder he’s so psyched about stepping onto a mound again.

“It feels exciting,” Banuelos said. “Arm feels great.”

He admits to being cautious when he first began throwing a baseball again, but not anymore.

“I throw a curveball now and I can’t feel anything,” Banuelos said. “All my pitches feel comfortable. It feels like before.”

Well, not everything has come back from his past just yet.

He was hit hard in two major league spring training appearances with the Yankees, allowing seven runs over two appearances that made up one full inning for an ERA of 63.00. But two of his three outs were recorded by strikeout, making for another step on his long road to recovery.

That is how his progress must be measured now.

Banuelos will open the season working in extended spring training in Tampa, with hopes of working his way back to Triple-A at some point during this season.

“Manny will start in Florida, but eventually, he’ll be in Scranton,” said Mark Newman, the vice-president of baseball operations for the Yankees who runs their minor league system. “He’s an exciting guy.”

But he constantly cautions himself not to rush things.

“I’ve got to be smart,” Banuelos said. “I don’t try to do too much. I’ve just got to let my arm go.”

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