Tournaments | Story | 10/23/2015

A first-rate first impression

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – Never underestimate the value of a first impression, especially during a job interview. An impression that can be even more valuable, it certainly should be noted, if a person doesn’t even realize he’s interviewing for a job.

On the scorching-hot evening of July 17 at the Goodyear (Ariz.) BallPark Complex in the west Phoenix suburbs, a 6-foot-6, 185-pound right-handed pitcher from Elk Grove, Calif., walked out to the mound wearing the uniform of NorCal Baseball to face the EvoShield Canes in an early pool-play game at the 17u Perfect Game World Series.

Matt Manning, a 17-year-old senior at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, cuts an athletic frame that at first glance screams “basketball player!” which, in fact, he is. And a very good basketball player at that. But on that hot July night in the Arizona desert, everything about Manning screamed “baseball player!” which, in fact, he is. And a very good baseball player at that.

Facing the star-studded Canes lineup would be a challenge for any pitcher, even more so for a young man who arrived relatively late to this elite-level pitching platform. But Manning showed a 95 mph fastball, 80 mph changeup and 79 mph curveball that limited the Canes to one unearned run on two singles in five innings of work – he struck-out 10 and walked one – and left everyone in attendance quite impressed, including EvoShield Canes President/CEO and head coach Jeff Petty.

“I remember throwing against them that night and I did pretty well,” Manning said Thursday night. “They asked me if I wanted to be a part of the team for this tournament.”

And so here he is, a valued teammate of the other very talented EvoShield Canes team members at this week’s Perfect Game WWBA World Championship, played-out Friday under mostly sunny skies at the breezy Roger Dean Stadium Complex.

“I’m excited; I don’t really have to be too nervous because I have a good team around me,” Manning told PG before making his PG WWBA World Championship/EvoShield Canes debut late Thursday night. “This is probably one of the best, if not the best, teams in this tournament so I’m really excited. I like to play with the best and try to improve myself every day, and everyone out here is just really good.”

That’s a fact. Six class of 2016 prospects on the Canes’ roster, including Manning, were at the Perfect Game All-American Classic high school all-star game in San Diego in mid-August, and many others could have made a strong case for being there.

Manning, a Loyola Marymount recruit ranked as the country’s No. 10 overall prospect and No. 5 right-handed pitcher (which speaks volumes towards the quality of righty arms in the 2016 class) was joined on the West Team’s roster by shortstop Nicholas Quintana from Las Vegas, Nev. (ranked No. 23 nationally, an Arizona commit) and outfielder Avery Tuck from San Diego (No. 8, San Diego State).

Third baseman Joe Rizzo from Oak Hill, Va. (No. 11, South Carolina); outfielder Khalil Lee from Centreville, Va. (No. 47, Liberty) and middle-infielder Grant Bodison from Simpsonville, S.C. (No. 48, South Carolina) were on the Classic’s East Team roster. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that it was the hard-nosed Rizzo who delivered the two singles off Manning during his outing at the 17u PGWS.)

The PG All-American Classic experience is something that has stayed with each one of those six Canes’ players the last two-plus months, but perhaps with none as much as it has Manning.

“That was great; it was a good week,” Manning said. “I met a lot of new players and then I got to meet a lot of other people, like (former MLB All-Star closer and PG A-A Classic Honorary Chairman) Trevor Hoffman. I got to talk to him for quite a while and that was just great. But this is a getting-to-you process. I’ve known some of these guys before and I know who they are, but not much beyond that.”

The PG All-Americans aren’t the only talented class of 2016 prospects on this Canes roster. Outfielder Seth Beer from Suwanee, Ga. (No. 30, Clemson); right-hander/first baseman Gianluca Dalatri from Wall, N.J. (No. 92, North Carolina) and left-hander/outfielder Rian Haire from Hudson, N.C. (No. 98, South Carolina) are the headliners.

Twenty-four roster spots are filled by prospects ranked in the top-500 nationally and a total of 23 have made commitments to NCAA Division I colleges and universities.

As far as playing alongside so many other talented ballplayers, Manning said, “There is definitely a friendly competition. Everybody wants to come out better than the next person and that helps build a friendly rivalry between the players and that’s always fun.”

With the gang all present and accounted for, Manning has already played a small but what could turn out to be very consequential role in the Canes’ quest to win an unprecedented third straight PG WWBA World Championship tournament title.

He pitched the first two innings in the Canes’ 7-0 win over Team Northwest from Salem, Ore., without allowing a hit, recording all six of his outs by strikeout and walking one; he showed a fastball that sat 91-94 mph. In fact, he and 2016 right-hander Sawyer Bridges and 2016 lefty Taylor Gibson combined on a seven inning no-hitter with 14 strikeouts and four walks.

“I felt really good out there; that was a lot of fun,” Manning said Friday morning.

“I think with Matt, as his growth continues, he needs to see a lot of good competition and this is one of the best (places) that we could play,” his pitching coach, Randy Waite said Thursday night. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have people like Jeff Petty invite us out to something like this and take care of us and be so kind to let us face some of the best competition that we don’t always get to see back in California on the West Coast.”

This has been quite an interesting journey Manning has been on. He and Waite made the nearly 3,000-mile trip to South Florida from their Northern California homes with the hope of advancing Manning’s career at a rate that will even exceed the speed-of-light-pace it’s already on.

Waite, a right-handed pitcher who had some experience in Independent League ball in the late 1990s, is on the coaching staff at NorCal Baseball, working closely with Rob Bruno and Tony Crivello with group’s 17u and 18u teams; he himself played for NorCal Baseball about 15 years ago.

This is important because Manning has only been a pitcher for the last two years. The focus during his early years as an athlete was on basketball, not surprising since his father is Rich Manning, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center who played two seasons in the NBA with the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers, to go with several seasons overseas.

Baseball arrived late in his teen years and may have taken over as his sport of choice, but Manning is hoping to play both baseball and basketball at Loyola Marymount, where he has committed to the baseball program. Doing both should not be a problem for Manning, at least not as far as his development as a pitching prospect is concerned.

“There might be more challenges if you were a position player but as a pitcher it’s kind of nice. In November he goes and plays another sport in which he gets physical activities and workouts and doesn’t have to throw a lot and can still stay active. Being a pitcher, it’s kind of nice that he can do that,” Waite said before adding jokingly, “It also keeps him distracted and out of trouble.”

Manning agreed: “Being a pitcher, it’s a lot easier,” he said. “After I throw, I really can’t do too much more so I can go in and get my shots up or just workout. I can stay in shape and give my arm a good rest during the basketball season. It’s something that I really wanted to do, play both sports in college.”

Despite just two years in the system, the PG WWBA World Championship is already Manning’s fifth PG event. He was named to the all-tournament team after his breakout performance at the 17u PG World Series and was also all-tournament at the PG California World Series Upperclass tournament played in Fresno earlier this month.

He threw a one-two-three inning with one strikeout at the All-American Classic and also stood out at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., earlier in August. At every event, his fastball sat in the low to mid-90s, topping out at 95.

“Matt’s progression has just been phenomenal,” Waite said. “We set some goals when we first started out and about every three months we reevaluate those goals and every time I’ve asked him to do something he’s reached and went above and beyond.

“One of the best things about Matt is that when he gets to face better competition he really shines well. It’s the bad teams I always worry about, and that’s why he’s out here is to make sure he can play with the best.”

The EvoShield Canes improved to 2-0 in pool-play with a 3-0 win over the Peachtree City, Ga.-based Homeplate Chilidogs Friday afternoon. The Canes hit just .289 as a team in the two wins – Rizzo was 3-for-5 with three singles – but pitchers Manning, Bridges, Gibson, Haire and right-hander Garrett Stallings from Chesapeake, Va. (No. 317, Tennessee) combined to throw 14 two-hit, shutout innings with 23 strikeouts and six walks.

“We expect to win; I want to win. I think we have a good group and I think we’re going to make a good run at it,” Manning said prophetically Thursday night.

“For any kid to be a part of something like this is just a good experience in general,” Waite said. “For example, we’re on a bus and it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, this is what the future could be like,’ and that’s a very good process for somebody that might have that future to go through that maturation process at this point.

“That’s what makes tournaments like this … very special to these kids and really, it helps them grow up; I can appreciate that.” And Matt Manning can certainly appreciate the value of a first-rate first impression.

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