On Manoah’s journey to stardom, Morgantown remains memorable stop

·8 min read

Alek Manoah is from Homestead, Fla., a place he references proudly — and frequently — in any discussion of his path to becoming one of baseball’s top starting pitchers.

Homestead is where he saw the work ethic and sacrifices of his mother, Susana Lluch; where he played ball with his older brother, Erik, now a minor league pitcher; and where Alek built the bravado America witnessed during his on-the-mound narration of a three-punchout inning at the All-Star Game.

Manoah has a third home, too, literally and figuratively between South Florida and Toronto. Before he became the Blue Jays ascendant ace, Manoah had to mature into a leader capable of shouldering such responsibility.

He did that in West Virginia.

This weekend, Manoah will be as close to Morgantown, W.Va., as the Major League Baseball schedule permits. Manoah and the Blue Jays are in Pittsburgh to face the Pirates, including the season finale of MLB Sunday Leadoff on Peacock at 12pm ET.

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Manoah takes the mound in Friday’s series opener at PNC Park, in a perfect week for Mountaineers fans to make the 75-mile trek: One night before Manoah’s start, the West Virginia football team visits archrival Pittsburgh in the first Backyard Brawl in over a decade. The convergence provides a perfect occasion to explain Manoah’s significance to West Virginia athletics — and vice versa.

“He’s the turning point in the history of our program,” said Randy Mazey, the WVU head baseball coach since 2013. “When he’s pitching, there’s rarely a game that goes by when an announcer doesn’t say he pitched at West Virginia. We hosted an NCAA regional because of him and his teammates. He changed the face of West Virginia baseball.”

Manoah’s recruitment followed a deliberate pace, and some coaches speculated he was slow-playing the process. The reality was simpler: Manoah’s family lacked the money to travel across the country for the unofficial visits that produce commitments from 14- and 15-year-olds.

Derek Matlock, then the top assistant at West Virginia, was among the first to reach out to Manoah after his dazzling performance at the 2015 Perfect Game National Showcase. Manoah took official visits — with travel expenses paid by the school — to Auburn and Mississippi State. On one trip, he had dinner at a fancy steakhouse. He met Charles Barkley at Auburn.

As much as Manoah loved talking with Sir Charles, what he craved most was a family atmosphere. He needed to see a little of Homestead in his next home. Mazey sensed as much, which influenced the coach’s choice of location for Manoah’s recruiting dinner.

Mazey’s home.

When Manoah arrived, the first thing he did was play catch in the yard with Mazey’s son, Weston.

“If I was going to be a thousand miles from home, with no family of my own there, I kind of needed that family environment,” Manoah recalled in a recent conversation at Yankee Stadium. “It felt right.”

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Said Mazey: “When we started working with this program, we didn’t have much of a tradition . . . We had to be super relationship-oriented. That’s what attracted Alek. He came to our house. We cooked dinner for him. He got to know my kids and my wife. We weren’t going to be a turnstile program, where you run kids in and out of here. We pride ourselves on getting to know the kids and developing the kids . . . When you look at it that way, who cares where they’re from? You might not think a kid from Miami is going to end up in Morgantown, but boundaries didn’t matter to him. Relationships did, and he got the chance to meet a lot of people who will care about him the rest of his life.”

Sam Kessler, Manoah’s close friend and WVU teammate, has a vivid recollection of the first time Manoah experienced a snowfall on campus. “It was like watching a 6-year-old run around in the snow, throwing snowballs everywhere,” Kessler said. “I’ve never seen a grown man have so much fun.”

Manoah’s nickname within the program quickly became “AK” — a compressed version of his first name and nod to how often he had to spell his name for people who mistakenly called him Alex.

Manoah has a vivid recollection of his collegiate debut on Feb. 19, 2017. The Mountaineers led UNC Charlotte, 6-1, and he was brought in to record the final three outs. He did — but only after issuing two walks and surrendering two runs to the host 49ers.

“One fan was the only thing I could hear,” Manoah recalled. “HEY ALEK! YOUR STIRRUPS ARE OFF! I’M SWIMMING IN YOUR DOME! I was so nervous. It was my first college outing, all this stuff. I’m throwing gas but I can’t throw a strike. Then I start hearing this guy.

“I’ll always remember that guy’s voice in my head, but it taught me how to not listen to that stuff.”

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Kessler and Manoah developed a tradition as road roommates. If either of them had a bad outing, they’d order Chinese takeout food and watch “Friends” reruns. However therapeutic the ritual was, it didn’t exactly fit the diet of a future professional athlete.

“He was always serious about playing baseball, but as a freshman he wasn’t all that serious about a baseball career,” Mazey said. “He was a kid. He liked to go out and have fun. He had a big personality and loved the college scene. At one point, I told him, ‘AK, when you’re ready to commit to doing this for a living, you’re going to have to start getting serious about nutrition.’ Once he did that, the results followed. It wasn’t a flip of the switch. It was more of a developmental process.”

Manoah was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team in 2017 and pitched well as a sophomore, in addition to some at-bats as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter. But his summer with the Chatham Anglers in 2018 changed the arc of his career. While focusing exclusively on his work as a pitcher, Manoah led the Cape Cod League with 48 strikeouts, to go along with a 2.70 ERA in seven starts.

“He figured it out,” said Kessler, a minor league pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery. “He took a lot of pressure off himself. He just decided he was going to have fun playing baseball against the best players in the country.”

Manoah’s momentum continued into 2019, when he was the unanimous choice as Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. The Mountaineers hosted an NCAA regional, but their storybook season ended on a sour note. They led Texas A&M, 9-1, in the seventh inning of the regional final — and lost.

“Complete devastation,” Mazey says. “The team was so upset — and the Draft was the next day.”

The Mountaineers knew Manoah was likely to go in the first round, but how could they celebrate in the aftermath of a crushing defeat? Still in shock over the result, Mazey asked Manoah where he wanted to watch the coverage. “Let’s do it at your house,” Manoah told him. “Let’s go back to where it all began.”

And so they did. Susanna traveled up from Florida to join Alek and his teammates. When the Blue Jays selected him 11th overall, Manoah’s Morgantown friends smothered his Homestead family in hugs and applause.

“We went from devastation to elation,” Mazey said. “He’s such a team guy. You love the kid. Leaders, to me — they call them influencers on social media — are able to influence how people play and also act off the field. That’s the way AK was here. You saw that in how his teammates wanted to share that moment with him.”

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Manoah’s easygoing demeanor coexists with a deep sense of obligation found in the lessons of his personal journey. He is the grandson of Cuban immigrants on both sides of his family. One of his grandfathers worked as a Pepsi truck driver for 30 years. At home, mealtime conversation was entirely in Spanish. “If you wanted to eat, you had to speak Spanish,” Manoah said, grinning, “and I wanted to eat.”

Manoah describes baseball as “a game of minorities” and feels an obligation to bring people together, in the Blue Jays clubhouse and beyond. At a camp he conducted last year for players from diverse backgrounds, Manoah shared information about college and professional baseball that he lacked as a teenager.

“Nowadays, 14-year-olds are late if they’re not commuted to a school,” Manoah said. “That’s not fair for a kid who didn’t have the money to go on an official visit. Now he’s 18, waiting for an official visit, and schools are like, ‘All we have left is a preferred walk-on.’

“There’s so many good kids who get lost in that negative environment. That’s where I truly believe God will open doors when they need to be. I feel like he’s going to use me to open doors for others.”

Seven years ago, a door opened at the Mazey household in West Virginia. Manoah walked in and hasn’t looked back. He may not be from Morgantown, but his baseball identity is. And this weekend, he’s almost home.

On Manoah’s journey to stardom, Morgantown remains memorable stop originally appeared on NBCSports.com