ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Fifth inning Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field. A spring training game played in a big-league ballpark. Decent enough crowd. Even a cowbell or two. Nowhere near a regular season atmosphere. But about as close as it can get in the middle of March.
Alek Manoah had been humming right along, allowing a run over four innings on four hits, a walk, and, naturally, a hit batter. But after Daniel Robertson led off the fifth with a single and gave way to pinch-runner Vidal Brujan, who swiped second and advanced to third on a fly ball, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander was facing a legitimately stressful spot. Third trip through the Tampa Bay Rays lineup. Runner on third, one out. Infield in. Go time.
Manoah started Wander Franco with a slider — why not? Franco fouled it off. Then it was four-seamer in for a ball, and two-seamer on the hands for a swinging strike. Manoah liked the reaction that one got. So, he went right back to it — front-hip. Franco didn’t offer. Called strike three.
Next was a pinch-hitter — Josh Lowe, one of Tampa’s best prospects. And he brought his lunch pail. Lowe fouled off the same first-pitch slider Franco did; he took the same four-seamer in for a ball, too. Then it was a battle. Sinker up fouled off. Sinker waste pitch. Slider on the plate fouled off. On the mound, Manoah gathered and took a deep breath.
These are the moments Manoah loves. Feeling his way through a plate appearance. Competing with a hitter physically and mentally. Reading swings. Making adjustments. Thinking ahead. It doesn’t matter what the calendar reads, where he’s standing, who is or isn’t in the seats. Manoah’s here to beat you.
And he beat Lowe to his spot. Nearly the same front-hip sinker he got Franco with, only a little higher. But same result — called third strike. From his landing spot on the mound, Manoah let out an involuntary roar. He didn’t even feel himself doing it. As he walked back to the dugout, he looked back at Lowe to make sure the Rays batter didn’t think Manoah was showing him up.
“He was joking about it in the dugout. He was like, ‘I’ve got to be the first guy to yell like that in a spring training game,’” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “That’s how he is in the season, too. He’s emotional. He’s competitive. Guys feed off of that.”
And for Manoah, it wasn’t only about the strikeouts. It was how he got to them. Early in Sunday’s outing — which ultimately saw Manoah throw 71 pitches, 50 for strikes, over six innings of one-run ball — he sensed the Rays were a swing-happy bunch. Both of his fastballs were playing well early, generating efficient, soft-contact outs. He mixed in more sliders as he went along, tripling up on it to strand a runner at second in the fourth.
But as he faced Franco for a third time, while staring at a runner 90 feet from the plate in his wind-up, Manoah wanted to show him a different look than he had the two times prior. So, he threw that first-pitch slider in and off the plate, trying to get a whiff or a foul tip. Manoah wanted to put it in a spot where his worst possible outcome was a ball. He trusted his fastballs enough to battle back if he fell behind.
He didn’t, as Franco gave him the strike he was looking for. And from there, Manoah was able to get the star shortstop with a pair of well-spotted, glove-side sinkers. Manoah liked the sequence so much that he went right back to it as Lowe, a dangerous, left-handed hitter like Franco, stepped in with two out.
And while it took a bit longer, Manoah was able to work his way to the same result. Plus, he was able to do it by thinking along with Lowe, who’d fouled off a slider Manoah left too far over the middle of the plate moments prior. Manoah figured that if he could execute a sinker in the same lane, he could trick Lowe into thinking it was another slider that would tail way in off the plate, rather than a two-seamer that would land on the edge.
“It worked perfectly. I think that’s why that emotion came out,” Manoah said. “Because that was exactly what we were trying to do. We executed it perfectly. And it worked — twice. I get a lot of gratification from that. That’s why I was like, ‘Yeah!’”
Those are the moments Manoah’s after in these late-spring outings. The feedback he’s gleaning from hitters, particularly Rays he’ll no doubt face during the regular season, is invaluable. There’s still some pitch fine-tuning to be done as the 25-year-old builds up towards opening day. Particularly with his changeup. But Manoah’s looking to accomplish a lot more than mere tinkering in these final dress rehearsals.
“In the beginning of spring, you’re just trying to work on the mechanics — working on those combinations,” Manoah said. “But with this outing and the next one, I think the mindset changes a little bit. Like, ‘OK, we feel really good with where everything’s at. Now, let’s just go out there and compete.’”
And about that changeup. It’ll be a critical weapon for Manoah this season as he works to stay ahead of a league that now has 300 innings worth of video and data on him. He threw it seven times Sunday, earning five swings and a whiff.
His two balls with it both came against right-handed hitters, who the pitch isn’t really for. And although left-handers were clearly in swing mode when he threw it, Manoah wasn’t displeased with the shape of the contact he was generating. He did give up a double off the pitch to Rays first baseman Luke Raley. But putting the outcome aside, Manoah was fine with the process.
“I think I threw it in a good spot — he got it off the end of his bat and hit it to right field. If that’s the worst-case scenario, I’m happy with that,” Manoah said. “And felt really good about the other ones — I got a swing-and-miss, we got some rollovers on it, got some weak pop flies on it, got guys out ahead. I think being able to mix that in early in the count and late in the count is just going to open everything else up.”
The feedback Manoah’s received from Blue Jays hitters during live batting practices this spring is that his changeup looks remarkably similar to his sinker out of the hand. His intention going forward is to capitalize on that by using the pitch in counts where he’s historically mixed a four-seamer off his sinker, or even doubled up on that front-hip two-seamer he loves to throw.
That’s why Manoah’s happy hitters are swinging so often when he throws his changeup. He believes they’re swinging because they think he’s throwing his sinker. And if hitters are, that will get their bats slowed down, which allows Manoah to come back with fastballs they’ll be late on. Or sliders that move in another direction from the same tunnel. Or even another changeup, which a scouting report will suggest he rarely doubles up on.
“It’s not like they’re going, ‘Oh, there’s the changeup,’ staying back, and hitting a shot,” Manoah said. “They’re out ahead ready for a sinker or a four-seam. So, it’s great if they swing at it. Because then I can throw a ton of stuff knowing that they’re seeing sinker, they aren’t seeing changeup.”
So, it was a little bit of everything for Manoah on Sunday at Tropicana Field. A little bit of fine-tuning in his penultimate start before opening day. A little bit of a regular season feel in a spring training game played in a big-league ballpark. A little feel for the crowd. A big roar on the mound. It may only be the middle of March. But the big man’s getting close.
“I think the mindset has switched from last start to this start to the next one — to let’s go compete. You don’t want to get into opening day and you’re still tinkering with things,” Manoah said.
“I came over here trying to beat them. That was the mindset today. They got most of their guys in there. Let’s go match up with them. Let’s go beat them.”