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Manoah’s mysterious year continues to perplex

Alek Manoah Toronto Blue Jays Alek Manoah - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — As quickly as Alek Manoah ascended to the big leagues two years ago out of the prospect darkness that was the pandemic, the fall was just as swift.

From Cy Young finalist in 2022 to finding himself demoted to the minors twice as he struggled to get hitters out for the first time in his life, Manoah’s season is as perplexing as it gets.

Sure, there were warning signs under the hood.

The advanced numbers did not match the sparkling 2.24 ERA last season, but that was baked into this year’s expectations and despite some expected regression Manoah still showed many traits of a frontline starting pitcher, with his ability to battle and compete at the forefront.

Now, Manoah is battling just to find himself again, with very few signs of an easy fix.

The demotion to the Florida Complex League in June and the subsequent quick return did not work.

This time, the Jays and Manoah came to the decision to pause his work over the last two-plus weeks before he finally reported to Triple-A this week.

After being officially demoted on Aug. 11, the 25-year-old right-hander still has not pitched for the Bisons.

So what has Manoah been doing?

It’s a question that does not have a clear answer.

According to Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins, Manoah isn’t hurt — and hasn’t been this season — but they decided to give him a full-body scan while he stayed back in Toronto, essentially a head-to-toe to figure out if there may be something they’ve missed.

“It was just to make sure he was in the best possible physical place before he went back there, taking the opportunity with our very thorough medical staff that is here in Toronto to check that box before he reported (to Triple-A),” Atkins said.

“It was really just being thorough to make sure he was in the best possible physical state.”

The fact the Blue Jays felt the need to check out Manoah’s arm, etc., leads one to believe they at least think there’s something, anything that might be off physically with their onetime ace.

Not the case, Atkins says.

The reasoning for the investigation, publicly at least, is all very vague.

“If you look back at the course of his career, every player deals with, whether they are aches and pains, and I’m not referring to Alek specifically, but any player is going to go through, even in the off-season, hiccups and bumps, and we just wanted to make sure there was nothing lingering,” Atkins explained when asked if Manoah had been pitching through injuries this season.

“We do not believe that was he was pitching through … well, our medical staff would have told us, if so.”

A pause of this length isn’t normal, and Atkins said they did clear it with MLB before keeping Manoah in Toronto.

“We made sure with Major League Baseball that they were OK with it,” Atkins said. “I think his trajectory, his career trajectory has been unique, and this pause after being optioned the first time seemed to make some sense to make sure we were thorough with that assessment.”

Asked if Manoah needed a mental or physical break, Atkins again didn’t really shed much light.

“Not to our knowledge that he needed either of those two things,” he said. “It was more about just making sure we were thorough and mutually working through it.

“It was a mutual process that we worked through.”

Where things go from here with Manoah is anybody’s guess.

Maybe an off-season of conditioning work, mental rehab, and time to work through the finer points of his delivery, why his slider went missing and how his fastball command regressed so quickly will provide a lightbulb moment and Manoah can find his form next spring.

Another scenario is maybe the stuff never returns to the level we saw in 2021 and 2022 and Manoah’s future is at the back end of a rotation rather than the front.

The Blue Jays front office is saying all the right things publicly, but make no mistake, internally nobody really knows how things went south so quickly.

“I feel like we were seeing a lot of positive things,” Atkins said. “The things that we talked a lot about were the command, the strike throwing, the swing and miss, and we saw really positive trends. I think there are a lot of scenarios where Alek could have still been here on this team and may still be here at some point this year.”

Right now, however, Manoah isn’t even starter No. 6 if an injury were to occur in the Jays’ rotation.

“Not today given the time off, but hopefully he returns to that in the coming weeks,” Atkins said.

While the sport of baseball can provide unexpected narrative turns in the blink of an eye, the likely scenario is Manoah is mostly on ice until next spring, where he’ll be given another chance to compete for a rotation spot.

A year ago Manoah “competing” for a spot on this team would’ve sounded crazy.

But this is where we are, fully entrenched in baseball reality with no clear answer as to how things got to this point.

Manoah has surprised once already and exceeded expectations to become a Cy Young candidate.

He’ll now have to do it again in order to get his career back on track.