Royals pitcher Onelki Garcia never thought he’d be in the big leagues again.
Throwing bullpen sessions at Kauffman Stadium, running alongside a big-league strength and conditioning coach, sitting in a major-league dugout — these are all moments the 28-year-old rookie from Cuba thought he’d surrendered when the Chicago White Sox’s Class AAA team released him in March 2016.
Garcia had defected from his native land nearly six years earlier, soon after turning 21 in August 2010, and spent months fleeing danger to reach the United States. He was nearly deported before the 2012 draft, when the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the third round. He’d only appeared briefly in the majors, logging 1 1/3 innings over three relief appearances in 2013.
For a moment last spring, after failing to land tryouts with other ball clubs, it seemed to Garcia all the trouble had been for nothing.
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“I felt like trash when I was released,” Garcia told The Star in his native Spanish. “As a ballplayer, that’s how you feel when you’re fired from your organization. All I could tell myself then was that I had to keep working because I already had a daughter, a wife. No one else was going to take care of me.”
Yet here he is, about to make his first major-league start four years after his initial debut. Royals manager Ned Yost penciled Garcia into the rotation in place of the injured Danny Duffy, despite Garcia’s inauspicious debut for the Royals last week.
Garcia will start Saturday in Minnesota, against a Twins team that owns the second AL wild-card spot the Royals so covet.
He is not in an easy position. But pressure isn’t something new for Garcia, who is still hesitant to discuss his covert journey to the United States for fear of harming his family members who remain in Cuba.
“I never put my head down,” Garcia said. “There were times I wanted to give it up and get a job doing something else because I wasn’t seeing any progress. But my wife pushed me to keep going. She kept telling me baseball was what I liked to do, what I know how to do.”
And the Royals found him doing just that last fall, toiling away in the Mexican League.
Garcia had a 3.82 ERA in 14 appearances, including three starts, and was 0-1 for the Diablos Rojos del Mexico, who signed him last July after he spent months testing free agency with an ever-shrinking bank account.
He had once been the Dodgers’ ninth-best prospect but had trouble coming back from a slew of injuries.
He was damaged — long past recovering from surgery that removed a bone spur in his left elbow but still playing on knees that each underwent minor procedures to repair meniscus tears in the past.
“It was a tough time for me,” Garcia said. “I ended up in Mexico and I thought I would play the rest of my career there.”
But the Royals signed him in October anyway, assigned him to Class AAA Omaha and let him get used to pitching in a major-league farm system again. When they wanted to stretch him out, he spent a few weeks at Class AA Northwest Arkansas after allowing 10 runs and a .417 batting average over 5 1/3 innings in relief in early June, and returned to Omaha as a starter.
The Royals selected Garcia’s contract when Duffy was placed on the disabled list last week.
Garcia wasn’t sharp in his debut for the Royals on Sunday, giving up a three-run homer on his second pitch and a grand slam in his first inning in relief of Eric Skoglund. After escaping the second inning, he retired 12 of the next 19 batters and never allowed the Indians to score again in that 12-0 loss.
Garcia will enter Saturday’s start with an ugly 7.94 ERA (five runs in 5 2/3 innings). He will face a Twins team that scored the most runs (177) and had the second-highest team batting average (.280) in the American League in August.
He won’t have it easy. But nothing has ever come easily to him, anyway.
“I was running out in Oklahoma, and they called me over to let me know I was going to the big leagues,” Garcia said. “I still feel emotional talking about it now. It was something I had wished for, for so long.”