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College | Story | 5/10/2019

Manoah, WVU continue to climb

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Alek Manoah (Dale Sparks, WVU Athletics Communication)

2019 MLB Draft Preview Index

The conversation among college baseball enthusiasts that surrounds the timing of the annual Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft usually heats up this time of the year because of the way it impacts the college game’s postseason.

As an example, the first day of this year’s draft is June 3, the same day NCAA D-I Regionals will be concluding; the draft’s later rounds continue right into the start of the Super Regionals a couple of days later.

That could prove to be a major distraction for many of the top college draft-eligible prospects who are trying to help their team fight its way into this year’s College World Series, slated for June 14-26 in Omaha. But the top guys, especially the ones playing on teams that are trying to make a statement over the final month of play, won’t allow all that outside noise to interrupt their concentration.

Top draft prospect Alek Manoah provides the perfect case in point. A 6-foot-7, 270-pound, overpowering right-hander for the West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big 12 Conference, Manoah is enjoying such a dominant junior season that he is now projected as a top-10 pick in the first-round of next month’s draft.

But with the No. 20-ranked Mountaineers (29-17 overall) in great position to earn at least an at-large berth into this year’s Regionals for the second time in three years, Manoah is determined to ignore all of the draft chatter swirling around out there and is intent on finishing this 2019 baseball season with a big kick toward the finish line.

He focuses only on his weekly routine – something that is much easier to do now that classes have wrapped-up at WVU – and that has helped him become a model of consistency for the Mountaineers down the stretch.

“There’s not much in my control with any of that stuff,” Manoah told Perfect Game during a recent telephone conversation. “The only thing that I could control is going out and pitching, so my mindset is to control what I can control. I can’t control where the mock drafts have me, I can’t control what people are saying; I can’t control where I go in the draft.

“All I can do is control how I throw that baseball and if I do that well, everything else will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

There is certainly no room for debate when conversations turn to how well Manoah has been throwing the baseball throughout his breakout junior campaign. With his 13th start of the season scheduled for Friday against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., Manoah is 6-3 with a 2.07 ERA with a 36-1 strikeout to walk ratio (108-21) in 82 2/3 innings of work.

Manoah was named the PG/Rawlings National Pitcher of the week on April 16 after throwing a complete-game, 15-strikeout shutout at No. 11 Texas Tech on April 12. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) named him National Pitcher of the Month for April after he went 3-0 with a 0.27 ERA in four starts, with two complete-game shutouts and 49 strikeouts in 33 innings.

As a result of those performances, Manoah – undrafted out of South Dade Senior High School in Miami in 2016 – has climbed draft boards like a mountaineer scaling up the side of the mountain on his way to the summit, with the ascension equally steady and deliberate.

PG’s MLB Mock Draft Version 2 published May 8 had Manoah – with his 98 mph fastball and his newly developed 83 mph slider – going to the Blue Jays with the No. 11 overall pick of the first round, not that Manoah will notice.

It is proof, however, that a lot of other people are taking notice of a 21-year-old who is fiercely competitive but comes across as easy going and very unassuming during conversation. Among those is West Virginia seventh-year head coach Randy Mazey, who managed to coax a big, hard-throwing 18-year-old from South Florida to the mountains of West Virginia.

“It’s been super fun to watch him develop,” Mazey told PG during a telephone conversation early this week. “He was super talented in high school … and we convinced him that with our track record of developing pitchers here at West Virginia that he could get a lot better within our system … and really put himself in position to play this game for a long time.

“He was crazy enough to come to school from Miami, Florida, to Morgantown, West Virginia, and he’s really bought into everything that we do here,” Mazey added. “He’s just gone above and beyond what’s been asked of him and the results are starting to show.”


… … …

which meant the Mountaineer players could, for the first time all spring, make baseball the center of their universe. When Manoah spoke with PG on Tuesday, he was definitely loving the life he’s living.

“Morgantown is about as pretty as it gets right now,” he said, and you could almost hear him smiling over the phone. “It’s about 70 degrees, the sun is out, guys are hitting batting practice; it’s just a beautiful day in Morgantown.” Winning, which West Virginia has been doing a lot of lately, can make anywhere the happiest place on earth.

The Mountaineers went 13-7 to start the season out of conference, a stretch that included a trip to Corvallis, Ore., where they dropped 2-of-3 to defending national champion Oregon State. They opened league play at Baylor in late March and the Bears broke out the brooms, outscoring the mountain men 28-9 during a three-game sweep.

But West Virginia showed remarkable resiliency, winning 14 of its next 19 games, including series wins over Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Texas. They lost 2-of-3 to TCU last weekend but topped Virginia Tech Wednesday and stand No. 15 in the most recent RPI standings.

“We’ve always played a really good schedule early, we have to play on the road a bunch early and we do that by design,” Mazey said. “If we can get into the conference season with an RPI in the top 25 or 30 and with as good as our league is, you’d think if we can have a pretty good season within our league we’ll be playing in the postseason.”

Being able to rebound so strongly after getting swept by Baylor told Manoah something about this group:

“That just goes to show you what kind of team we’ve got and the toughness we’ve got to win five series in a row, three against top-25 teams,” he told PG. “… Our mindset was to just go out and win one game at a time, and we started hitting the ball really well and pitching really well. We’ve always enjoyed playing with each other and that’s what helps keep us consistent.”

Manoah wouldn’t go so far to say the team is “pleased” with where its at right now because everyone involved knows there’s still a lot of work left to be done, but he did admit that the team has put itself in a very good position moving forward: “There’s a lot of excitement in our locker room,” he said,  “and every time we step on the field we know we’re playing for something.”

That’s quite a difference from a year ago when the players and coaches knew the only way they were going to advance to an NCAA Regional was by winning the conference tournament, which didn’t happen.

This spring, with a Big 12 weekend series at Kansas State, a mid-week game against Pitt at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and non-conference weekend series at home with George Washington still ahead before the Big 12 tournament, the Mountaineers can feel really good about sitting at No. 15 in the RPI.

“We’re extremely excited about where we’re at and where we’re heading,” Manoah added. “The guys are playing some of the best baseball we’ve played all year right now, so we’re looking forward to that playoff push.”

Manoah has become the ace of four-man starting rotation that Mazey calls the strength of this team, quite a turnaround from a year ago when the head coach said the starting pitching was one of that team’s biggest weaknesses.

The coaching staff went into last year’s fall practices and this year’s spring practices knowing the team couldn’t win without solid starting pitching. “When you talk about late season baseball with the conference tournaments and Regionals and Super Regionals,” Mazey said, “usually the teams with the best starting pitching will end up winning those games.”

Sophomore left-hander Jackson Wolf (2-3, 4.07 ERA) and junior right-hander Kade Strowd (4-5, 4.71) have joined Manoah in the three-man weekend rotation and they’ve been mostly solid and reliable. Manoah even said the starters have been “extremely dominant all year” because of their ability to work late into games, something the starters didn’t do very often in 2018.

A real ace-in-the-hole has been junior lefty Nick Snyder, the Mountaineers midweek starter. He is 7-1 with a 2.05 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings and was named PG’s National Pitcher of the Week last week after tossing a complete-game, one-hit, 16-strikeout, one-walk shutout against Marshall on April 30; .

“Our (mid-week) guy, Nick Snyder, this guy could pitch in the Big 12 every weekend if we needed him to,” Manoah said. “We’ve had three guys that have been very consistent all year but people forget you need a fourth starter to be able to win regionals, to be able to win conference tournaments, to be able to go deep in the ‘Supers’ and especially in Omaha. …

“All of us are staying together and seeing each other as equals,” he continued. “We’re all one team and we’re all just trying to help each other get better, and that’s been the biggest thing all year. Whether we have a good outing or a bad outing we’re still getting better.”

Offensively, the Mountaineers are hitting just .245 as a team while averaging just more than five runs per game. Senior outfielder Darius Hill, senior catcher/third baseman Ivan Gonzalez, sophomore catcher Paul McIntosh, sophomore infielder Tyler Doanes and junior infielder Marques Inman are all hitting between .288 and .282 as fulltime starters. McIntosh, Inman and junior infielder Kevin Brophy lead the team with eight home runs apiece; Inman has a team-high 31 RBI, Hill and Brophy 30 apiece.

They have been tested. Mazey called West Virginia’s entry into the Big 12 Conference in 2013 a “great thing for our program, for our kids, for our coaching staff, for our community, for our administration” and noted the opening of new Monongalia County Ballpark in 2015 has added to the excitement surrounding the program; inclusion in the Big 12 has also opened doors when it comes to recruiting.

“We like to limit our recruiting base to the Earth,” he said, and it wasn’t necessarily said tongue-in-cheek. “If you live on Earth and you’re a good baseball player there’s a chance the Mountaineers’ coaching staff is going to find you.”

When Mazey first arrived to lead the program, the staff tried to bring in a lot of kids from Texas simply because West Virginia travels to the Lone Star State at least a couple of times a year for Big 12 games at Baylor, Texas, TCU and Texas Tech; this year’s roster features players from 13 states.

Manoah describes himself as a “religious person” and he told PG that God was responsible for guiding him to West Virginia, that all the signs he was being shown were leading him to Morgantown. He also noted that when he went on other visits, the coaching staffs would generally take him out for dinner at a nice local restaurant.

That didn’t happen at West Virginia. His first night in town he was treated to dinner at Mazey’s home and was joined by the head coach’s wife and kids along with the entire coaching staff and their wives and kids. He was blown away.

“It was just like one big family dinner and that was extremely important for me, to be 17 hours away from home and still feel like I was at home,” Manoah said. “Just being able to be around something that felt like my family; my home away from home is basically what this place is to me. I’ve had no regrets ever since I made that decision.”

… … …

high school season in the spring of 2014, having received only a couple of offers from jucos up to that point, so he decided to go the extra mile during the important summers of 2014 and 2015.

He was rostered with three different programs at PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments in the summer of 2014 before getting hooked up with the Atlanta Blue Jays for a run at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October.

That started a relationship with the Jays that last throughout the summer and fall of 2015 and included a return trip to Jupiter. He was also named to the all-tournament team at the 2015 PG WWBA 17u National championship playing with the Jays.

The summer of 2015 actually got started for Manoah in mid-June at the PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., where he showed a 94 mph fastball, an 84 mph curve and a 77 mph slider; he earned Top Prospect List recognition at the event.

Manoah was familiar with the PG National because his older brother, 2014 right-hander Erik Manoah Jr., had pitched at the showcase in 2013. It became a goal of Alek’s to pitch there as well, and when he got the invitation he jumped at it.

It was there, at jetBlue Park, that then-West Virginia assistant coach Derek Matlock first saw the big right-hander throw, and the player and the program developed a lasting – and  mutually beneficial – relationship.

“Being able to pitch there in front of all those people and, obviously, against great competition was a huge stepping stone for me,” Manoah said. “It gave me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the summer … and then pitching in Jupiter that fall in front of all those people gave me momentum going into my senior year, as well. Those events were crucial for me in my younger days.”

Manoah was used out of the bullpen and as a spot-starter his first two seasons in Morgantown while he worked to define his role within the staff. There were growing pains and adversity sometimes reared its ugly head but Manoah – and the coaching staff – persevered.

“They were two years for me that were extreme stepping stones in making me into what I am this year. I feel like my freshman year was more a starter year for me and last year was more of a year when I got really result oriented and I couldn’t get past the fourth or fifth inning. I feel like this year I’ve learned how to put everything together and just focus on one day at a time, one game at a time.”

The big right-hander’s career really turned a corner last summer when he spent a couple of months pitching for the Chatham Anglers in the prestigious Cape Cod League. While in the Cape, Manoah got to work with pitching coach Dennis Cook – a veteran of 15 big-league seasons – and he soaked up as much vital information as possible.

“Last summer was a priceless experience, just in general,” Manoah said. “Doing that and being around guys that work extremely hard … and just being able to pick Cook’s brain really helped me with my routine and the way I go about my business every day. … Just learning from those guys and competing every day was a huge step for me, as well.”

Back in Morgantown, Manoah put to use what he learned in the Cape to lift both his own game and that of his teammates, and Mazey has done an amazing job leading this team into the top half of the Big 12 standings. If the Mountaineers keep winning, not only will they be back in the NCAA postseason, there’s a very good chance they could be hosting a Regional later this month. A lot of work remains, however.

“If you watch a duck swim on the top of a pond, he’s swimming around and he looks nice and calm and it’s a real serene setting, but under the water his legs are just going as fast as they can to make him go,” Mazey said. “Right now in our program, there’s a lot of excitement, there’s a lot of hype … so from the outside looking in everything looks great. But when we get inside the lines we’ve got to keep those legs moving and keep doing what we did to get us here.”

Manoah will be going all-in while the Mountaineers are making what they hope is a deep run into NCAA bracket-play; West Virginia has never played in a Super Regional or in the College World Series.

But while doing everything he can to make sure his team comes out on top on the days he pitches, thoughts of the upcoming draft will never be far away. It’s always been Manoah’s dream to play in the big leagues and getting drafted is the first necessary step toward realizing that dream.

“I told him going in that his season is going to be dictated by how well he handles all the distractions that are going to be surrounding him … and he has handled it way better than I could have ever imagined,” Mazey said. “With everything he’s going through and talking to people, he’s still out there fighting for the Mountaineers.

“(Manoah) has not shown any signs of selfishness or ‘this is all about me’, he’s out there trying to win a game because that’s what’s going to help us take this program somewhere it’s never been before,” he concluded. “In my 30 years of coaching, as an overall kid, competitor, teammate, leader – he’s the best I’ve ever been around.”

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