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After long journey back, Rays’ Anthony Banda ready to compete

Following Tommy John surgery in 2018, the Rays left-hander is healthy and hopes to stick in the big leagues.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Anthony Banda during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, February 13, 2020.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Anthony Banda during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, February 13, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

PORT CHARLOTTE — Equipped with a healthy arm and a clear head, Anthony Banda is ready to show that he’s back.

At this point, Banda doesn’t think about the ulnar collateral ligament replacement procedure, more commonly called Tommy John surgery, that cost him most of the past two seasons. The surgically scarred elbow reminds him, but his left arm is live and pain-free. In his bullpen sessions, his fastball is back to hitting the mid-90s. His delivery feels clean.

“My body feels great,” Banda said. “I want to show that I’m ready to pitch, that I’m ready to contribute at the major-league level. I want to be better than I was when they traded for me. Obviously they traded for me for a reason and that reason kind of faltered with me getting hurt.”

When you’re gone as long between outings as Banda has — before three September 2019 relief outings, he last pitched in a Rays uniform on May 26, 2018 — you can be forgotten. You can get lost in the shuffle, especially given how many arms this team uses. But Banda enters spring training confident he can earn his first Opening Day roster spot.

On Sunday, he made his spring debut, retiring three of the four Yankees hitters. He allowed a home run to Miguel Andujar, but struck out two, tinkering with a new changeup that he hopes will become an added weapon.

“This is a big step for Banda,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Everything he’s doing coming off his first normal off-season in a while is big. So we’re encouraged he was out there and the ball looked like it was coming out of his hand well. He looked comfortable.”

The Rays added Banda to their treasure trove of young arms before the 2018 season, acquiring him with lefty reliever Colin Poche from Arizona in a three-team trade that sent outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to the Diamondbacks. He made three major league appearances that season, a total of 14⅔ innings, before he was sidelined.

The comeback from Tommy John surgery is long. The process can be testing, as much mentally as physically, and Banda admits he struggled.

“It was just a big, big mental grind,” Banda said. “It got to the point where I was in a deep dark hole, I was depressed. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to go out and enjoy scenery or enjoy the day with my significant other.”

Banda said he emerged with the help of his girlfriend, who was expecting the couple’s first child, long talks with the team’s psychiatrist, and the birth of his son, Ayden, in December of 2018. Former Rays pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, who twice underwent Tommy John surgery, reached out and prepared him for the hurdles to expect with his rehab. Conversations with former Arizona teammate and friend Patrick Corbin, who also had the procedure, also provided comfort.

“You take every step in the rehab process as an accomplishment, being able to throw again, being able to throw 60 feet, 90 feet,” Banda said. “Those little steps might seem so little when you’re healthy. But being able to set those little steps along the way really helped me get to end of the tunnel with the light.”

Though he made it back to the majors last September, he still wasn’t quite back. So he worked harder this offseason. He moved into a new home and turned his garage into a gym. He’d throw into a mat at 4 in the morning, tinkering with his mechanics to make sure he was ready to compete for a spot.

Cash said the team plans to stretch Banda out as a starter, though he could fit in relief of an opener or in the middle innings.

“I trained for this,” Banda said. “I did everything I could in the offseason. … I didn't want to leave any stone unturned. I didn’t want to have any of those doubts in my mind once I got here. Now I’m here and I’m ready to go and ready to compete and ready to win a spot.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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