Growing pains not affecting Manaea's confidence

Growing pains not affecting Manaea's confidence

OAKLAND -- Sean Manaea arrived at the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2012 as a late-blooming prospect from Indiana State with one prevailing thought in mind.

"I kept telling myself, 'Don't embarrass yourself,'" said Manaea, who made the 17-hour drive from Indiana with his mother, Opal. "I didn't really know what it was. I heard about people who had a couple bad starts and they booted them out."

Chad Gassman, manager of the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, anticipated Manaea would help his club, taking him solely based on the recommendation of Indiana State coach Rick Heller, who assured him Manaea would be good.

"I remember watching his first bullpen going, 'I don't think this young man understands how good he is and what's going to happen this summer,'" Gassman said. "I told my assistant coach, 'It's going to turn into pandemonium by mid-summer,' and it was. Because every scout and every MLB team is seeing who the next big thing is, and that year was Sean Manaea.

"It came out of nowhere."

Manaea's tough pitching

A wave of sudden attention crashed down on Manaea harder than any washing up on the shores of Cape Cod. His first start against the Cotuit Kettleers was so impressive that Cotuit manager Mike Roberts, father of former Orioles second basemen Brian Roberts, pulled Gassman aside and said, "He's going to be a big leaguer." By August, Manaea flirted with no-hitters, taking one into the eighth inning against the Brewster Whitecaps.

So it wasn't a surprise when Manaea was named the league's most outstanding player, striking out 85 batters in 51 2/3 innings, then a league record. His surge through the Cape forced the rest of baseball to consider the same question Gassman did: Just how good can Manaea be?

Four years later, in his rookie season with the A's, Manaea still faces that question. Oakland fast-tracked him to the Major Leagues just a month into his third full season -- one summer after trading Ben Zobrist for him -- and after only 10 starts combined with Oakland's Double-A and Triple-A affiliates.

Manaea is currently 2-3 with a 6.16 ERA in seven starts.

"It's baptism by fire," A's reliever Sean Doolittle said.

The lefty isn't sneaking up on anyone anymore, either. Manaea gave up at least four runs in each of his first four big league starts, including an eight-run shelling by the Red Sox on May 11. He's a power pitcher -- he struck out at least 10 batters per nine innings at every level -- who admittedly has struggled to adjust.

But in making those adjustments, Manaea continues to lean on his past. In 2014, he said the expectations that accompanied being a high Draft pick and inking a $3.55 million signing bonus initially hit him hard, and he posted a 5.16 ERA through the first two months of that season.

Manaea fans J.D. Martinez

"Every single bad outing, I felt that pressure," Manaea said. "Like, 'Why did they give me all this money?' It got in my head and I didn't know how to stop it. It was hard during that time, but I ended up getting past it."

Manaea's always had the ability to shrug off setbacks. Gassman said Manaea is unassuming and rarely feels bigger than the moment. His pitching coach, Curt Young, called him even-keeled, adding, "I don't think he really cares who is in the batter's box."

Manaea will often ask Doolittle and others for advice following starts, and he said this is the first time, at any level, he feels he can rely on older veterans for support.

"You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable," Manaea said.

Of course, as Young points out, having a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and command of both a slider and a changeup doesn't hurt, either. It's that mix of poise and talent that excited the A's enough to push Manaea through the Minor Leagues, and it's what they saw Wednesday when he turned in his best outing of the year, striking out eight Twins while allowing just one run over six innings in a win.

It's even more impressive considering that Manaea was facing Double-A hitters nine months ago.

"You get a guy like this and you hope he develops into that No. 1 or No. 2 starter that you trust every time he goes out there," Young said. "I feel like that's the kind of attitude he has toward the game."

"I think the sky's the limit," Doolittle said. "His size, his stuff, being left-handed. Also, mainly his attention to detail and his work ethic can give him a chance to do some really special things, and hopefully he'll be able to do them in this uniform."

And so Manaea, who has solidified a spot in Oakland's rotation for the time being, marches forward. Gone are the beaches of the Cape and his brief stay in the Minor Leagues. In come new hitters, new challenges and, presumably, more growing pains.

But the expectations? Those still remain. As does the one constant question that has followed Manaea for the past four years, and he may not yet have the answer for.

Just how good can Sean Manaea be?

Mark Chiarelli is a reporter for MLB.com based in Oakland. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.