NEW YORK (AP) - Three years ago, Mike Brosseau was a college graduate surrounded by teenagers on minor league backfields in Florida. His batting gloves were tattered, his cleats falling apart and his bank account essentially empty.
This week, he was batting third at Yankee Stadium, facing a Cy Young Award winner in the thick of a postseason race.
"I don't think anybody would admit they were thinking that would happen," Brosseau said.
The thrifty, innovative Tampa Bay Rays believe they have found a hidden gem in Brosseau, an undrafted infielder from Oakland University in Michigan who signed for $1,000 - "about $600 after taxes," he noted - and bolted to the big leagues. Three weeks after his major league debut, the 25-year-old infielder has become a middle-of-the-order option for manager Kevin Cash as Tampa Bay chases the star-studded Yankees in the AL East.
"He forced our hand," Cash said.
A slew of injuries led to Brosseau's initial call-up in late June, and in 14 games entering Thursday, he is batting .348 with four homers and a 1.071 OPS. Cash had no expectation that the 5-foot-10 Brosseau would slug his way into the heart of the order, but he has become important enough that the Rays sent big league veteran Guillermo Heredia to Triple-A this week instead of Brosseau when they needed to recall a pitcher.
"The trust to be able to throw him in the 3-hole and play at any position, that's showing right there how much we believe in him," hitting coach Chad Mottola said.
It's certainly not what Brosseau expected after going undrafted following his senior season in 2016. The Indiana native batted .355 his last year at Oakland, and scouts led him to believe he would be selected in the draft. His name was never called, though, and the Rays' James Bonnici was the only scout to reach out afterward. Tampa Bay offered Brosseau a $1,000 signing bonus, and he quickly accepted.
The club put him on its rookie-level Gulf Coast League roster, an affiliate filled largely by players signed out of high school or internationally.
"Being a 22-year-old, non-drafted guy in the Gulf Coast League surrounded by a bunch of 18-year-olds, it was definitely eye-opening," he said.
Some of his teammates had gotten substantial signing bonuses, and Brosseau watched enviously as boxes of gear piled up next to their lockers. Pro players with the right connections go through three or four pairs of cleats per month, but a budget-conscious Brosseau - players in the GCL make about $1,000 per month only through the end of the season - made his college spikes last all summer. The heel split open on one of them when he lunged for a ground ball, and for the final few weeks of the season, the shoe would fall off his foot nearly every time he rounded first base.
"I was slumming it hard, for sure," he said.
Using team-provided stock bats and batting gloves shredded full of holes, Brosseau batted .319 that summer and .321 the next year across two Class A levels. After a strong stint in the Australian winter league following the 2017 season, he signed with an agent who helped upgrade his gear, then hit a career-best 13 homers in 2018 with Double-A Montgomery. He was invited this year to major league spring training, where he hit .316 and put himself on the radar for the big league coaching staff.
"Every time he came in in the back end of a game, and then eventually in some starts, he just controlled the at-bat every time," Mottola said.
Brosseau opened the season hitting .317 with 15 homers with Triple-A Durham, and he's been even more dominant in the majors.
With low hands and a high leg kick, the undersized Brosseau has a swing reminiscent of another late-blooming slugger - the Dodgers' Justin Turner. Brosseau said the similarities are coincidental, and unlike Turner, there was no major overhaul in his swing that got him launching balls with more authority. He made one small adjustment in the minors - trying to hit the ball farther out in front of home plate - and everything has clicked from there.
"Your natural swing comes up the farther you come out, and that helps me lift the ball a little bit more," he said. "Turn those singles into gap shots."
He looked like a natural to Mottola in spring training. The hitting coach described Brosseau's hands as "unbelievable" in their quickness, especially when he gets caught off balance.
Brosseau has shown that off since his call-up. He had a two-homer game against Baltimore last weekend, and this week in the Bronx, he singled and scored against CC Sabathia, crossing home plate in fresh spikes with a bright, white logo. There's no slumming in big league clubhouses.
"It's been a great three years," Brosseau said. "Obviously happy to be here."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.