Image credit: West Virginia righthander Alek Manoah (Photo by John Williamson)
When righthander Alek Manoah takes the mound for West Virginia, there is a presence about him that’s hard not to notice.
Maybe it’s the 6-foot-7, 275-pound, defensive lineman-like stature from the South Florida native. Or it could be the routine he performs behind the mound before his first pitch, when he stands about 10 feet behind the mound and prays, asking for “his angels to keep him safe and whether he is good or bad that day that he learns from his experience.” Then, as he quickly comes out of his stance of meditation, he throws his arms up in the air like a bull fighter preparing to step into the ring for a fight. Many of his opponents this season have struggled to return that same fight.
In my opinion, Manoah’s most intimidating presence comes from how he has taken his 95-98 mph fastball, his newly developed, 82-84 mph slider and a much-improved changeup and has morphed from a hard-thrower into a polished pitcher. That improvement has turned into better results, and Manoah is 6-2, 1.81 with 95 strikeouts and 15 walks in 69.2 innings.
Now a junior, Manoah attributes much of his success to simply figuring himself out.
“I always had a good fastball, but it wasn’t allowing me the success I wanted or needed to have,” he said. “I watched a lot of video this past summer in the Cape (Cod League) on other pitchers and knew I needed to develop a better slider for my success.”
And that he has done. And his improved slider now gives opponents something to think about other than his mid- to upper-90s fastball.
In his first two years, Manoah split time between being a starter who would struggle to advance deep into games and a reliever who would struggle to command more than one pitch at a time. Now a junior, Manoah has taken his game to another level.
“When I used to start games I would come out like I was a closer and go all out,” he said. “Now I’ve learned to not come out throwing as hard with my fastball at max effort , and now I allow myself to get into the flow of the game.”
That’s exactly what I witnessed firsthand in his start against Texas Tech on April 12, the first of back-to-back shutouts the big righthander has thrown. Manoah not only got into the flow of the game, but he kept getting better as the game went on, maintaining his 95-98 mph velocity through nine innings. Many have heard the old saying, “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” and Manoah is doing just that. Not just over his three-year college career but now in his Friday starts.
Manoah has thrown 31 straight scoreless innings, a streak that dates back to his March 29 start against Oklahoma. In his last three starts, Manoah has struck out 41 batters in 26 innings, including back-to-back shutouts with 15 strikeouts each against both Texas Tech and Kansas.
Against Texas Tech, Manoah was truly dominant, holding the potent Red Raiders’ offense to four hits and no walks in a 125-pitch shutout. His 120th pitch was a fastball clocked at 97 mph. In all, 105 of his 125 pitches were strikes and he was in complete control of his arsenal, spotting his fastball to both sides of the plate and mixing in his late-breaking slider and an occasional changeup.
Performances like these are what his Mountaineer teammates and their fans have become accustomed to seeing this year. His first two starts of the season, against Kennesaw State and Georgia Southern, were almost as impressive. But it was in failure in week three, at Oregon State, that Manoah felt he took the next step in his career.
“They were the defending national champions and I made it bigger than it was,” Manoah said. “I fell back into the trap of results and didn’t stay with the process of what has brought me the success this year.
“I went out and didn’t pitch my game. At Oregon State I was throwing sliders and changeups to the first hitter and never established my fastball like I had in my previous starts.”
Next thing he knew, the Mountaineers were down 7-2 early and never recovered. He credits how he handled his failure to where he is today.
“I tried to be someone I wasn’t,” he said. “I went back into the mindset of my sophomore year of expectations and again it failed me.”
Manoah feels not only was the failure at Oregon State a turning point in the season for him, but he feels it was a turning point in his career. Now, a couple months later, he is back into his comfort zone—trying to win each pitch, one pitch at a time and focusing on winning innings. And it is something that clearly seems to be working out just fine for Manoah.
But perhaps the most impressive thing coming from the projected first-round pick is that he felt he let his team down at Oregon State.
“If I would’ve stayed to what I do, maybe we end up winning that series against the defending national champions on the road,” he said. “And how big would’ve that been for our team?”
So with some adjustments and learning through failure, Manoah has helped West Virginia back into the Big 12 title race with his tone-setting Friday nights. The Mountaineers (24-14, 8-7) are ranked No. 18 in the Top 25, their highest ranking in program history, and have a chance to host a regional. Monoah also has put himself into the mix to be potentially become the highest drafted player in program history, a status currently held by righthander Chris Enochs, who was the No. 11 overall pick in 1997.
Manoah is letting all of that take care of itself. Instead, his focus will remain on trying to simply “win pitches, one at a time.”