Image credit: West Virginia righthander Alek Manoah (Photo by John Williamson)
OKLAHOMA CITY — After his team picked up a 7-4 win against Kansas State on Wednesday afternoon at the Big 12 Tournament, Texas Tech shortstop Josh Jung was asked about facing righthander Alek Manoah, the West Virginia ace and soon-to-be-first-round pick, for a second time this season.
The first time around, last month in Morgantown, Manoah shut out the Red Raiders and struck out 15, but Jung was confident that this time would be different.
“We’ve got him (Thursday),” Jung said. “We’ve seen him once, so it’s our time to get him back.”
In many ways, the Red Raiders did have more success against Manoah. They consistently put together competitive at-bats, recorded four hits and reached base five other times on a walk and four hit batters, and they scored a run in the third inning on a Brian Klein sacrifice fly.
But ultimately, the result was much the same, with the Mountaineers collecting a 5-1 win to move into the catbird seat at 2-0 in their tournament bracket. They now get a day off and are just one win away from reaching the Big 12 Tournament championship game.
Manoah was everything you have come to expect, both in his stats and in his demeanor.
From the outset, he worked with pace, gestured wildly at everyone from his teammates to the opponent to the umpires and anyone else who came into his line of sight, and he systematically set down a physical Texas Tech offense with a mix of tailing 95-mph fastballs and wicked breaking balls buried in the dirt or thrown for a strike.
And he just generally gave off an amount of energy you usually associate with something like an electrical plant.
For example, in the fourth inning, Manoah thought he had Texas Tech catcher Braxton Fulford struck out on a check swing. He leapt off the mound, pointed at Fulford, and then insisted the home plate umpire check with the first base umpire. It turns out that Fulford did not, in fact, swing, but Manoah was undeterred and simply struck him out swinging on the next pitch.
Then, in the fifth inning, after Gabe Holt reached on an error and advanced to second, West Virginia turned a nifty line drive double play up the middle, retiring Dylan Neuse and picking Holt off second. Manoah celebrated by bouncing around by the mound and pumping his fist in the direction of his middle infielders.
Manoah was clearly energetic, but he was also poised. He held Texas Tech to just a single run despite the Red Raiders getting their leadoff man on base in each of the first six innings. And to hear his teammates and coach tell it, he’s a consummate teammate, more worried about leading West Virginia into the postseason than his personal stock as the draft quickly approaches.
That combination makes him special, even for someone like West Virginia coach Randy Mazey, who has had a hand in developing some familiar names.
“I’ve had a lot of pitchers in 30 years of coaching and a lot of really good ones,” Mazey said. “I had Jake Arrieta at TCU, Andrew Cashner, who is in the Orioles’ rotation and pitching really well. A lot of good guys. The whole package. Alek Manoah is arguably the best one I’ve had. With the stuff that he has, the velocity he has—he has three pitches that he can throw for strikes, really, at any time. Throw on top of that the competitiveness, and the fire, and desire, and commitment, and the selflessness.”
Over 126 pitches and eight frenetic, furious innings, Manoah held the Red Raiders to one run on four hits with one walk and 10 strikeouts. Perhaps more impressively, as bright as he burned, he didn’t burn out fast.
He struck out at least one Texas Tech batter in seven of eight frames, including a pair in his eighth and final inning against two of Texas Tech’s best bats in Klein and Cameron Warren.
All that, mind you, without anything resembling an effort to pace himself for the late innings.
“There’s no pace,” Manoah said. “I’m just trying to win at-bats, and in the later innings just let my competitiveness take over.”
Amazingly, his effort almost wasn’t enough. Texas Tech righthander Caleb Kilian matched him for seven innings, giving up just two hits and two runs with one walk and nine strikeouts.
Kilian relished the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with someone of Manoah’s caliber.
“I think I prefer it, because you know there is going to be a dude over there on the other side, and it gives me someone to compete with,” he said. “I just want to do better than he does, but unfortunately, he got that today.”
The Mountaineers came into the week as a darkhorse host candidate should they make a deep run in Oklahoma City. That opportunity still exists, despite some less-than-stellar resume items, such as a 13-11 regular season Big 12 record.
The best resume item the Mountaineers can add, of course, is a Big 12 tournament title. And by getting off to a 2-0 start, they are well on their way. Texas Tech and Kansas meet on Friday in the losers’ bracket, and West Virginia will only have to beat the winner once to advance to Sunday’s title game.
But even if it doesn’t get quite that far, WVU has done enough already that its RPI is getting tough to ignore. After the win over the Red Raiders, the Mountaineers are up to No. 11, which puts them in rarefied air among teams that are already locks to host.
Getting in position to host a regional takes just about everyone on the roster, but Thursday night, Alek Manoah picked his team up and carried them a long way in that direction.