Jonathan Loaisiga's long road to MLB is finally at the finish line

NEW YORK -- It was rumored, and later all but confirmed by Double-A Trenton manager Jay Bell, that plans were to have right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, a 23-year-old who had pitched all of 35 innings of affiliated baseball in the United States entering 2018, make his Major League debut as the Yankees' spot starter in Game 2 of their June 4 doubleheader in Detroit.

"It was a big surprise to me when they told me there was a chance," Loaisiga said through Yankees team interpreter Marlon Abreu on Thursday. "A couple weeks ago, I was just trying to do my job in Double-A, when they told me there was a chance I was going to pitch in Detroit."

Rainouts and days off eliminated the Yankees' need for a spot starter in Detroit, but just 11 days later, the dream will come true: Loaisiga is going to make his Major League debut, pitching against Tampa Bay under some "Friday Night Lights" at Yankee Stadium.

"The other day, (Bell) called me into his office and told me a big opportunity was coming for me, and I was going to get a chance to pitch here in the big leagues," Loaisiga said. "I'm super excited. This is a great opportunity the Yankees are giving me; I'm very grateful for that, and I thank God I'm here today."

Loaisiga admitted it's been a "tough road" for him to get to the Majors, but that phrase doesn't tell the half of it. Originally signed by the San Francisco Giants out of his native Nicaragua, Loaisiga was 8-1 with a 2.75 ERA in 13 starts in the Dominican Summer League in 2013, and looked to have a promising career ahead. But then, he missed all of the 2014 due to injury, and was released by the Giants in May 2015.

He went unemployed until the Yankees signed him in February 2016 after team scouts saw him dominate in a 23-and-under tournament in South America, but in his season debut that May with Class-A Charleston, he lasted just 2 2/3 innings before another arm injury -- this time one that required Tommy John surgery -- cost him another 13 months.

"I thank God for the strength to get me through that," Loaisiga simply said of his career nadirs.

As the story goes, though, such began his road to redemption. Loaisiga threw 32 2/3 innings last season between the GCL and Staten Island, posting a 1.38 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning. The Yankees were impressed by that body of work, but were perhaps even more impressed when Tim Naehring, one of Brian Cashman's top lieutenants, saw a bevy of scouts come to watch Loaisiga pitch in an Instructional League game last fall.

The Yankees added him to the 40-man roster after thatl, and Loaisiga did spend time with the Yankees during Spring Training as all 40-man roster players do, but you may not have noticed, as he made just one appearance and kept to himself in the clubhouse. You may not have noticed, but the team did.

"I know what I saw in Spring Training; he's really talented and I think he'll be a really good pitcher in this league, but there's just an easy way about him," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "Swagger's not the right word, but there's just a presence about him; there's a humility that he walks around with, but I also believe there's a confidence that he's unaffected by what's going on around him."

"Being around these guys in Spring Training, and seeing the routines they have, I learned a lot from that," Loaisiga added. "Getting able to get advice was definitely an advantage. It was a great experience for me to learn from them, and they basically told me to be myself."

The rest, as they say, is history; that history says Loaisiga has gone 6-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 10 starts between Class-A Advanced Tampa and Trenton so far, and he'll add another piece of history to that line Friday night.

"It's been a tough road for me to get here," Loaisiga said, "but now it's about enjoying this moment and enjoying the opportunity. I want to do the best I can for the team and focus on winning."

And what exactly, for those who've never seen him, is the way for Loaisiga to do that?

"Command my fastball the way I have been in the Minors, and executing pitches," the righty said. "I just have to keep doing what I do, pitch the way I know I can, and not try to do too much."

He's "super excited," as he said, and so is the Yankees' skipper.

"I'm excited to see him pitch here; he's a guy with a really good arm, and a really simple athletic delivery," Boone said. "I think a big reason why he's the guy we chose is that we feel like his stuff is excellent, and his delivery is low-maintenance enough that it should allow him to step up and be representative here right away."

For now, Boone said, Loaisiga is stepping in to replace Masahiro Tanaka on likely a "start-to-start" basis, but, the skipper cautioned, you just never know what could happen.

"For now I think that's the idea, because hopefully, Masa's not down too long," Boone said. "I think he's a bit of a placeholder until Masa's ready, but you never know; I think (Loaisiga) is really talented and he's ready to be here, and when opportunity knocks, sometimes things happen faster than you expect."

Regardless of how he performs, though, history also says that Loaisiga will become just the 15th Nicaraguan-born player to reach Major League Baseball, and the first to play for the Yankees. Ten of the previous 14 are pitchers, and Friday begins a career Loaisiga (and the Yankees) can only hope is as good as the most successful of the collective, Dennis Martinez.

"I actually met him a couple years ago, and we had a conversation; he gave me some tips about how to move on the mound and attack hitters, but I haven't talked to him since," Loaisiga said of "El Presidente," who won 245 games over 23 MLB seasons. "He's a baseball ambassador to us (Nicaraguans), and you looked up to him as a kid, because he's proof you can make it to the big leagues. For us, it's about following in his footsteps."