Inside Pitch: A closer look at Manaea’s masterpiece

Sunday, after the dust had settled and the orange Gatorade mist had subsided following 2018’s first big league no-hitter, Sean Manaea revealed he hadn’t slept a wink.

He was too busy — responding to over 200 text messages from, as he admitted, what seemed like all of Indiana, and talking to his parents, Sam and Opal, back in Florida and his girlfriend Megan vacationing in Mexico with friends.

In-game, Manaea was so engaged in his duties that he allowed the gravity of the situation to slip past him. After it, between phone calls, text messages and reviewing the highlights of the “cool stuff” he had just done, the 26-year-old’s adrenaline continued to drive him through a sleepless night. But, even a full day and another A’s win later, does he have a full grasp on what occurred the night of April 21, 2018 at the Oakland Coliseum? Does anyone?

The story of Manaea’s no-no, the 12th in Athletics history and seventh since the club moved to Oakland 50 years ago, and its significance didn’t start at 6:07 p.m. Friday. It didn’t start on March 30, when he made the first start of his third big league season. It didn’t even start on April 29, 2016, when he made his major league debut.

Nope, it started way back Union Mills, Indiana and South Central Junior-Senior High School. That’s where Dave Pishkur, Indiana state’s winningest high school baseball coach and head coach at Andrean High School since 1978, saw a tall skinny kid he immediately recognized as “way too big a fish in way too small a pond.”

Pishkur got Manaea to transfer to Andrean for his senior season and he led the Fighting ’59ers to a state title. From there he went to Indiana State University and under the tutelage of head coach Rick Heller and pitching coach Tyler Herbst, who was the only scout to see the potential in the then-lanky lefty out of high school, developed into a BFC Whitehouse Award winner as the Cape Cod League’s most outstanding pitcher in 2012.

He threw his first near-no-no there, allowing the game’s first hit in its ninth inning on a knock by Aaron Judge — yeah, that one.

Perhaps that is the best place for us to start.

The Circumstance

No-hit bids being broken up late in games are a dime a dozen in baseball lore. And that has perhaps never been more evident than in a week when two pitcher lost their chance to dance with destiny. On Tuesday, Patrick Corbin lost a no-hitter on an eighth-inning infield hit. Friday night, less than 24 hours before Manaea’s magical run, Tyson Ross had his chance cut short when an eighth-inning liner to center escaped a defender by a narrow margin.

Long story short, it’s hard to do no matter the opponent (but that’s for later).

Jonathan Lucroy, who logged no-no No.1 of his career catching Manaea, has seen his share of bright flames fade out in his eight years a big leaguer:

“I’ve seen them broken up on flares, I’ve seen them broken up on home runs, I’ve seen them broken up before — there’s a lot of different things.”

But getting the chance was first.

In a 2016 phone conversation, Heller told me that if Manaea could ever put command together with his electric stuff and deceptive delivery he would throw no-hitters in the major leagues — not *a* no-hitter, *no-hitters*.

You see, he’s always had tough-to-hit stuff. In 53 starts prior to 2018, Manaea had allowed three or fewer hits 10 times including an April 15 five-inning no-hit performance against the eventual-champion Astros last year. He left that game having walked five batters, letting two score, and thrown 98 pitches.

Command.

Coming into 2018, command had been the one thing blocking Manaea from becoming the super-stud he was expected to be. After posting a 5.23 ERA and 1.738 WHIP post-All-Star break in 2017, Manaea went into the winter determined. He visited home only for the holidays, spending most of his time working on fine-tuning his delivery in Arizona. He told me prior to the season that his work was focused on developing a trust in his slider.

Manage Bob Melvin said the fruits of that labor were easily identifiable from the jump:

“He came into camp trying to prove a point that he’s a top-of-the-rotation guy and that the second-half of last year didn’t sit very well with him.”

Lucroy had never caught Manaea before 2018. The first time he did, he noticed straight-away that the big lefty had an incredible changeup — one he called a “super-changeup.” Now commanding his fastball both up and down, and being able to plant his slider down on both sides of the plate, that “super-changeup” has been allowed to play.

Beyond the vast improvements to his command, illustrated beautifully by The Athletic’s Eno Sarris, Manaea had never completed a game in 58 previous career starts. He had never gotten an out in the ninth and only four times gotten an out in the eighth.

Two of those occurred this season, after making huge strides in his command.

Said Melvin:

“He’s doing it differently than when he first got here — he was throwing 96-97 miles an hour and he was a two-pitch guy. Now he’s throwing 90-92 but his command is much better; he’s a three-pitch pitcher now; he commands both sides of the plate.

There is no doubt that the command is the greatest difference from last season to this.

The Comparison

In a conversation with Pishkur, the five-time Indiana State high school baseball championship-winning coach told me the comparison he heard while attending Manaea’s workout for pro scouts after his junior year in college was to another lanky lefty. One with an over-wound delivery, like Manaea’s, and high-octane stuff, like Manaea’s.

A guy who made his major league debut in 2010, when Manaea was a freshman at ISU, just three hours north on the south side of Chicago.

Manaea’s college roommate, a Chicago native, went to that pitcher’s debut and returned to Terra Haute with stories of a 6-foot-6 180-pound lefty who threw 100-mph fastballs and an ungodly slider. After watching some videos, Manaea immediately became a fan of Chris Sale.

He told me that he modeled himself after former Twins and Mets ace Johan Santana, working on the changeup from a young age, but admitted that there was something intriguing about a low-armed fireballer.

That being said, it only makes sense that on his night of nights Manaea would have to outduel Sale, who was far from terrible surrendering three runs in seven innings. It was Manaea’s first time facing the man with whom he had been compared, a man who is off to yet another strong start looking to finish among the top five in the AL Cy Young race for a fifth-consecutive season.

It only makes sense that Manaea’s night came facing a guy who I’m sure many scoffed at the mere thought of the two’s comparison.

It was only right the A’s ace completely stole Sale’s shine, and in many ways forced those outside of Boston to forget that Sale ever had the ball. Manaea, who was a bit timid responding to my first mention of the comparison when he was one week into the big leagues, said Sunday:

“It was really cool having that comp and all, but I’m just trying to be myself — be my own pitcher.”

The Competition

While Sale is the name directly across from Manaea’s in the boxscore, he wasn’t the one 60-feet-six-inches away.

The list of superlatives is almost endless. Boston, even after back-to-back losses in Oakland, leads all of baseball in nearly every offensive category — hits, runs, RBIs, average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, you name it. But for one night he made that lineup look, well, foolish, striking out 10 times en route to a hitless loss. And that’s from Lucroy’s mouth, not mine:

“They were all messed up over there. They had no idea. … That’s one of the best lineups in the league over there and he just no-hit them. Being able to watch it, they weren’t very comfortable. It was a lot of fun.”

The 17-2 record pregame was the best winning percentage (.895) by any team ever no-hit at least five games into the season. That’s after 252 previous no-nos.

It was also the first time since another Athletic, Dave Stewart, no-hit the Blue Jays way back 1990 that a team leading the league in scoring was held hitless.

Shortstop Marcus Semien, who was credited with an assist on the game’s final out, said the performance was nothing short of his team’s best pitcher pitching the best he ever had. That’s what it took to shut down the Sox. Second baseman Jed Lowrie, who recorded the 27th putout, added:

“That team can absolutely hit. For Sean to do what he did against that lineup is pretty special.”

Beyond what the Red Sox have done this season, steaming out to a 17-4 record (16-2 before landing at Oakland International), it is the Red Sox. The mystique is not for show.

As a franchise, the Red Sox hadn’t been no-hit since April 22, 1993. It had been one day short of 25 years; 3,987 regular season games played. Manaea was 14-and-a-half months old when Chris Bosio shooshed a lineup that included Andre Dawson and Mo Vaughn.

Five of the 22 players who appeared in Saturday’s game (23 percent) hadn’t even been born yet. That group includes Matt Olson and Andrew Benintendi, who linked up for the game’s most memorable defensive play, which featured Benintendi needing to leave the base path to evade a lunging Olson tag attempt to end the sixth — the most memorable defensive play came on a ball hit 75 feet.

That’s another thing.

Normally, performances like Manaea’s call for that one memorable play — the one that only happens on the most magical of nights: Omar Vizquel’s play the last time Boston was no-hit, or even the one Kevin Kouzmanoff made lunging into the third-base dugout when Dallas Braden threw the A’s last no-no (a perfecto).

And just for those keeping score, the Red Sox hadn’t even been shutout since Aug. 26, 2017 — 53 games.

After bouncing from unnoticed high school talent to first-round pick, from top prospect to a guy who was whirled into a tornado of command-related problems, Manaea has demanded the attention of the baseball world. And he will get it when he faces the reigning champs Friday.

Why is that? Because he made the best team in baseball look like it “had no idea.” Because his 1.23 ERA and 0.600 WHIP demand it. Or, if you’re Melvin, it’s simpler than that:

“He’s not just a thrower anymore, he’s a true pitcher.”

Thrower to pitcher, it’s a transition that Manaea had to make before completing his masterpiece, it’s a transition that every major leaguer has had to make before reaching their full potential. Hall-of-Fame low-arm lefty Randy Johnson had to make, even Nolan Ryan had to make before throwing a big-league record seven no-hitters, the first of which he threw at 26, by the way, the same age as Manaea.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.