Baseball, Featured, Sports, WVU Sports

How an ace found his place: West Virginia’s Alek Manoah

His baseball beginnings trace back before the Florida state championship at South Dade High in 2014. Further back than the King of Swat home-run record he smashed as a 10-year-old at Cooperstown. In fact, Alek Manoah’s baseball origin traces all the way back to the womb, when his mom was pregnant during the Marlins’ World Series parade in 1997.

“I was out there with my seven-month belly trying to get pictures and video,” Susana Lluch said.

No wonder her son grew up constantly bothering A.J. Burnett and Josh Becket during BP. Once, when Manoah couldn’t stand being ignored, he actually threw his glove at Burnett, who had no choice but to sign it and throw it back.

Manoah’s mom still has that signed glove, a time-worn first-base mitt. Just like she has the King of Swat trophy and other keepsakes from a career that’s about to escalate exponentially when the first round of the MLB draft unfolds Monday.

Yet the hulking West Virginia right-hander, projected to be a top-10 pick, isn’t focused on the Marlins or whatever organization will make him a millionaire.  His gaze is fixed upon Fordham, Texas A&M and Duke, opponents coming to Mon County Ballpark for this weekend’s historic NCAA regional.

Manoah will burst into the bedroom of catcher Ivan Gonzalez around 7 a.m. screaming “IT’S GAMEDAY! LET’S GO!” Then he’ll cook omelets and protein pancakes for the guys. Part ace, part chef, part uplifter.

South Dade coach Frank Burnside recalled Manoah’s mix of humor and competitive spirit making him a unanimous choice for team captain as a senior. “A fun guy to be around. Teammates loved him. You wanted him on your side.”

The kid whose mom called him “baby giant” because of his big frame and big heart, has put that heart into this Mountaineers program.

The dream

Manoah was a draft prospect coming out of high school in 2016 but he decided it would take “life-changing money” to sign, and $347,000 wasn’t it. That’s what the Rangers told Manoah’s advisor they’d be willing to pay — comparable to a fifth-round slot. After Manoah told his advisor no thanks, he went undrafted.

Two years earlier, he watched older brother Erik negotiate with the Mets, becoming a 13th-round pick. Erik wasn’t interested in college, but Alek felt his path led to campus.

“In the minor leagues, when guys go at the wrong time, it doesn’t work out for them, because they’re pressured and they’re pushed to make it to the next level,” Alek said. “In college, I had a chance to develop more mentally and physically and go through trial-and-error.”

At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, the junior’s right arm sports a tattoo of Jesus on the cross. He frequently references “God’s plan” when addressing how a south Florida kid wound up at West Virginia and how he didn’t come close to maximizing his potential the previous two years.

Manoah is humming now, though, having led the Big 12 in ERA and strikeouts during a season certain to bring All-American accolades.

“You’ve got a 96 mph fastball moving into you and a wipeout slider moving away,” Gonzalez says. “These guys haven’t touched him.”

These spectacular few months validated what Mountaineers coach Randy Mazey thought when they recruited Manoah: “He was a special kid.”

The recruit

The Georgia sun blared down upon the nation’s top prospects during the 2015 East Cobb tournament. From a sea of the plus-arms and booming bats, then-WVU assistant Derek Matlock zeroed in on Manoah.

“I probably saw 200 games over seven days, and he was my favorite guy,” Matlock said.

The Mountaineers weren’t in the running for players of Manoah’s caliber, and even Matlock admits thinking “we had no chance of me getting him.” Intent on trying nonetheless, Matlock stood near the on-deck circle, chirping encouragement through the fence as Manoah ripped through dry swings.

This happened for several at-bats. Matlock was going all-in. Even at the expense of ignoring prospects on other fields, he was determined to wait out Manoah after the game. “I decided I’m gonna go stand at the gate of that dugout and talk to this kid face-to-face” he said.

Their postgame talk lasted 45 minutes.

“I said, ‘Where’s Florida? Where’s Mississippi State? Where’s Auburn? They’re watching other games, while I’m right here, focused on you,” Matlock recalled. Ultimately, all the coach asked was for Manoah to visit Morgantown, and the kid agreed, saying, “If you’re standing around all this time waiting for me like this, I’ll come up.”

Manoah had taken other official visits, which typically centered around raucous football weekends and trips to steakhouses. At WVU, things were more sedate. Instead of going to a restaurant, the coaches invited the kid up to Mazey’s house.

Manoah later called home and told his mom: “They took me to the top of the mountain where Mazey lives. We had this family dinner. His wife and their kids are amazing. I feel like I’m at home.”

Mom replied, “That’s good. That’s how it’s supposed to feel.”

Still, Manoah had one visit remaining — to Auburn — which left Matlock uneasy. It’s hard to recruit against SEC baseball, and Manoah spoke highly of Tigers pitching coach Tom Holliday, the patriarch of a renowned baseball family.

His visit to The Plains went well, but fate intervened during the flight back to Miami. His mom, waiting at the airport, received a breaking news alert revealing that head coach Sunny Golloway and his staff had been fired.

As Mom held up her phone, Manoah bounded out of the jet bridge and asked, “Did you hear the news?”

Mississippi State emerged as the Mountaineers’ biggest competition, but fate intervened again — this time with a pair of shorts Manoah’s brother brought home. They were wadded up in the bathroom, and notice the Flying WV logo. He ran into the living room, screaming “Guys, look: It’s a sign!”

He decided then and there to call Matlock with his commitment. Mom wanted him to take a breath:

“Let’s think about this. It’s so far. Two plane rides, a whole day of travel. And it’s cold. You’re going from warm weather and the beaches to snow and hiking.”

But Manoah’s decision was fortified. He dialed Matlock, who was overjoyed, and soon Mazey joined in on speakerphone. Watching her son’s glowing expression during that call, Susana gained a sense of what he felt about West Virginia.

She still has a recording of that call in her cloud. She also remembers Erik telling his little brother, “Dude, don’t touch my shorts.”

The brothers

Manoah doesn’t delve into details except to say that his dad isn’t involved in their lives right now. Alek was in middle school when his parents divorced, a time of turmoil that Susana says “brings up many painful memories.”

That’s where Erik, two years older, filled the void with a tough-love approach.

“He became a role model,” Alek said. “Him being so hard on me, it kept me on the right path.”

A path that had its bumpy spots, though. As Manoah notes, “My brother was always a pain in the ass when he did stuff to toughen me up.”

After one practice at South Dade High, the boys were in a heated argument that ended with Erik refusing to drive Alek home. When teammates offered a ride, Alek declined, setting off on a three-mile hike. “If he wanted to play it like that, I was determined to walk home — and when I got there, we were going to handle this.”

Back at the house, Alek beat on the front door so loudly that Erik picked up a bat before unlocking. The fight started in the living room and spilled out into the front yard, where their mom drove up and discovered the boys engaged in what Alek labeled “World War III.” Susana was livid with Erik for leveraging the car she bought, and angry at Alek for landing a punch that broke Erik’s new Michael Kors glasses.

“Too much testosterone in that house,” Mom joked.

Now Erik is five years into his minor-league career, having been traded to the Angels. He’s pitching in the California League but doesn’t let the distance prevent him from monitoring Alek’s starts at West Virginia. The conversations have been mostly congratulatory this season, except for one.

On March 1, Manoah took the mound for WVU’s series in Corvallis. It was the home opener for Oregon State and they unveiled last year’s national championship banner. Manoah was pumped to pitch.

He went into that game “wanting to strike out 15 and throw a shutout,” but came out of it having allowed seven runs in two innings.

He issued three walks, twice hit batters with the bases loaded and wild-pitched home another run. The poise and self-awareness that trademarked his season weren’t accessible that night, as his nightmare outing snowballed.

“I gave up a run and it was like, ‘Damn.’ Next thing you know it’s three runs, and then I’m on the bench and it’s 7-1,” Manoah said. “I kinda got selfish. I let my mind get out of my body.”

In the dugout, as WVU batted in the top of the third inning, Manoah lobbied Mazey to go back out in the bottom half.

“Hey, listen, if we get back into this game I’m going back out. I’ll keep us in the ballgame and save the bullpen for the rest of the weekend.”

Mazey said, “You just threw like 60 pitches in one inning, so no you’re not.”

Manoah continued until Mazey squashed the debate. “You’re not going out there and getting hurt. Your team knows that you care about them and you want to win, but you just didn’t have your stuff tonight. It’s something to grow from.”

After the game, Manoah saw a text from Erik. It read:

“I know you might not respond to this, but everyone knows you could’ve dominated those guys. Next week is a new week.”

That hard-learned lesson in channeling focus and living pitch-to-pitch turned around Manoah’s season. In his next start he struck out 12 to beat Kent State, and his ERA since that loss to Oregon State is 1.64

The weight 

As Manoah filled out into 6-foot-5 teenager, his diet became a contentious issue and his weight fluctuated.

“Erik would really get on him,” Mom recalls. “He’d say, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere because you’re too fat. It’s going to catch up to you.’ Alek just did not want to accept it. He wanted to keep with the all-you-can-eat pancakes.”

Manoah was bulky as a WVU freshman, contributing to a lack of stamina and command. Across 10 starts he reached the sixth inning only three times. His final start of 2017 came in a regional opener against Maryland. The Mountaineers won 9-1 but Manoah was pulled in the fourth inning after hitting four batters.

A self-described “loud snorer,” he also wasn’t resting well. After a series of sleep tests, doctors removed Manoah’s adenoids that summer.

“Turns out, being able to breathe is pretty important,” he joked.

The surgery left him with a sore throat, which may have jumpstarted a new lease on his diet. Manoah noticed he wasn’t as winded walking the hilly campus. He felt more energized, and became serious about keying up the healthy habits.

His roommate Gonzalez noticed a dramatic change from “that tank that would go out and eat two burritos.” Nowadays, when players make a fast-food run, Manoah takes a pass because he makes his own food at the house.

The hump

Remember Tom Holliday? The pitching coach let go during Auburn’s 2015 staff purge? He got the chance to coach Manoah nonetheless, in last summer’s Cape Cod League, where they shared a pivotal conversation.

The pitcher confided he couldn’t get over that hump of four or five innings, when Holliday set him straight: “You can’t get over it because there’s a hump in your head.”

Having been relegated to the bullpen for his final 15 appearances as a sophomore, Manoah wanted to become an ace again, and knew his junior year could be make-or-break. He began running more in his spare time and made noticeable strength gains in the weightroom.

From that transformation emerged the Big 12 pitcher of the year. He finished the seventh inning eight times out of nine conference starts. Back-to-back 15-strikeout games against Texas Tech and Kansas, another 13 Ks at K-State and 11 more in Stillwater. Behind the plate, Gonzalez enjoyed Manoah’s most dominant games en route to breaking the school’s strikeout record.

“Before he was going four innings and he was gassed out,” Gonzalez said. “Now he’s going seven, eight, nine innings. I mean the guy is still throwing 97 in the ninth.”

The draft

“Alek is not a materialistic kid,” his mom said, “so he’s not looking at the draft thinking, ’Ooh, I’m about to make millions of dollars.’ He’s not being a hot dog about it.”

When the family received an invitation to the opening day of the draft, Susana was in tears. You live to see these moments,” she said, “so I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to New York!’”

Yet her son — normally the most gregarious guy in the room — played the wet blanket.

Mom, just relax,” he said. “If we’re in regionals, draft day is going to be in West Virginia. The last thing on my mind is the draft, because I’m going to stay in West Virginia until we finish what we started.”

Cue “Country Roads” over the loudspeakers at The Mon. Manoah is primed for this weekend’s sold-out regional and beyond.

Says mom: “I’m proud he followed the signs and went to West Virginia.”

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