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Physically and mentally transformed, Manoah hoping to get back to Cy Young ways

Toronto Blue Jays Alek Manoah Alek Manoah - The Canadian Press

DUNEDIN, Fla. — More than most, Kevin Gausman could completely feel and understand what Alek Manoah was going through last year.

To Toronto Blue Jays fans, Gausman is the ace.

The Cy Young contender, the $110-million dollar catch, and the guy you want on the mound in a big game.

Rewind about five years, however, and Gausman had gone from fourth overall pick and cornerstone of the Baltimore Orioles rotation to traded to the Atlanta Braves to designated for assignment to claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds to non-tendered that December, finishing a wild 16-month ride of negativity.

Gausman was facing a career turning point, but he obviously was able to figure things out. 

That perspective was shared with Manoah regularly last year and Gausman loved to see the young righty come into camp down close to 30 pounds and, most importantly, with a much better mental state intact.

“It sucked to watch,” Gausman said. "I really care about him. He’s a great teammate and a great person so it was tough to watch because I’ve been there before. I always told him, ‘Hey, at some point this is going to end. The mudslide is going to stop and you’re going to learn from it.’ 

“That’s the thing about baseball and pitching that’s kind of crazy, the more you go through it the more you’re going to learn. You don’t necessarily learn that much from a start (to a career for Manoah) that was kind of easy. You learn more when you have to grind through situations. I definitely told him that and I would always kind of remind him, ‘Dude, I was a lot worse than you.’”

Gausman’s 2019 ERA was a less-than-pristine 5.72, which led to the Reds cutting ties.

Manoah finished last year with an ugly 5.87 mark, leading to an off-season of reflection, conditioning and attention to detail.

It’s been clear to teammates that Manoah spent his time wisely this winter, and veteran rotation-mate Chris Bassitt has seen that up close.

“There were a lot of private talks throughout all of it, even this off-season,” Bassitt said. “It’s either you make this a really big negative for you or you make it a positive. It’s pretty obvious, I think, for a lot of people already that he’s made it a positive.

“The way he’s moving is a lot easier and the ball is coming out of his hand a lot better. His consistency’s a lot better. From just a throwing standpoint, it’s a whole heck of a lot better than it was last year. I was catch partners with him last year and so far I’m catch partners with him now and it’s truly a night and day difference just playing catch and seeing the consistency and how the ball’s coming out of his hand. He’s in a really good spot.”

The spot Manoah is in now is a positive one.

Last August, when he was demoted for the second time after allowing four earned runs over four innings in a start against the Cleveland Guardians, it was the opposite.

Instead of reporting to Triple-A Buffalo, Manoah wanted to get his shoulder checked out and his camp decided a reset was the preference.

Heading into Spring Training this week, time has maybe helped repair the relationship between Manoah’s camp and the club after some contentious service time and demotion debates, but the trade talk this off-season was very real, it just never came to fruition.

A winter of reflection has allowed the 26-year-old to move on and put it all in the rear-view mirror.

“Talking about the past doesn’t really benefit us now,” Manoah said Friday morning at the club’s player development complex. "There were a lot of things that went into it. For me, it’s just learning. Last year, there was a ton of learning and growing and I feel like I’ve been able to learn from some of the things that we’ve done and be able to build off that and get to where we are now.

“When your team is going to the playoffs and you’re not there, it’s tough. But like I said, talking about 2023, for me, is kind of not worth it. It’s in the past right now for me, which is really good. It was a tough year and a tough mental grind.”

Pinpointing exactly what went wrong for Manoah is futile.

If there was an easy answer, the Jays and Manoah would’ve fixed it last May and this story wouldn’t be written.

After a huge 196.2 inning workload in 2022, Manoah admitted he didn’t come into Spring Training last year in a great spot physically.

From there, things snowballed.

Mechanics, velocity, sharpness of stuff, confidence … it was all out of whack.

“A lot of the things that I’ve prided myself on and things I’ve been really good with the first few years in the league were pretty bad last year,” Manoah said. “For me, that’s going deep into games, attacking hitters, throwing more strikes, not walking guys, and just having that mentality of being a dominant starter out there. Sometimes when you get punched in the mouth, you start to second guess yourself, things like that. For me, it’s remember that bulldog that I have inside.

“I went into the season still searching for things and it was like every other start we were just trying to change things or adjust things and just trying to get back to me. We just never got there. We’ll get there this year.”

It’s been a year of maturation.

In addition to the lessons learned on the mound, Manoah got married in January — his wife is a certified nutritionist and he gave her all sorts of credit on Friday — and has endured the sport of baseball humbling him.

“It just gives you a bigger picture on life,” Manoah said of his wedding. “We’re extremely blessed to be able to come out here and play a game for a living and sometimes when you’re in the middle of it you forget how amazing it is. Even if you’re giving up eight runs, you’re still on a big league mound, you’re still in a big league stadium and it’s still a dream come true.”

If strike throwing and staying within his delivery is the on-the-mound physical goal, not overthinking things is the mental goal.

“I was out there thinking mechanics, I was out there thinking ‘Is this guy going to hit this pitch? Is this play going to be made?’, a bunch of things,” Manoah said. “The me I’m the guy who grabs the ball and who cares what the technology says, who cares what the scoreboard says, who cares what anything says, I’m going out there and attacking you. I feel really good about being that guy again this year.”

Manager John Schneider was conscious about checking in with his big right-hander coming off a tough season.

“I was down in Miami with him right after Christmas,” Schneider said. “I met up with him to see how things were going. From there, on the phone quite a bit with him, but I thought it would be good to meet in person and catch up with him all things on life and baseball. It was right before he was getting married so I just wanted to touch base with him.”

The message from the organization heading into camp is just do your thing and a rotation spot will be yours.

It’s pretty simple, especially with Yariel Rodriguez behind due to paperwork issues and Ricky Tiedemann needing some more Triple-A development time.

“Whenever you have a clean slate to work with, you’re kind of in a better headspace,” Schneider said. "He’s really kind of competing against himself to be the best he can be. When you’re having a tough year statistically, it’s really tough to have that good mental edge, but awesome to kind of see that he has it back.

“I think he looks great. Every year we always joke about ‘best shape of your life’ and things like that, but again for him I think it was just coming off a tough season and having the proper amount of time to reset and to kind of get after it was a really good thing for him.”

Truly evaluating what version of Manoah we’ll see this year won’t be able to happen for a while.

Manoah’s fastball velocity was 90-92 mph in his first bullpen session of the spring on Thursday, but the stuff won’t matter much until he’s back to punching out and inducing weak contact from big league hitters.

“I took a couple glances at the data,” Schneider said. "But you can see it. First and foremost, you look at his delivery and you can look at video afterwards, but just looking in real time the delivery was where it should be and his stuff looked correct. The movement on his fastball, the shape of slider, all that kind of stuff. When you match it up with the numbers, he’s right where he should be. He’s 90-92 in his first bullpen of the year, which is pretty damn good.”

The Blue Jays want Manoah to attack hitters and compete.

That’s when he’s been at his best.

“The same mindset he’s had in the past where he’s focused on the hitter and focused on being one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around,” GM Ross Atkins said of what he wants to see from Manoah this season. “I think it’s getting back to that mindset of aggressiveness and he talks about that. From a fundamentals standpoint, the strike throwing will be the biggest issue. That’s not something, based on the information we have right now, we see as being a significant issue or challenge and he’s shown the ability to do that more than he hasn’t.”

In a month, maybe expectations can be adjusted once Manoah is back to consistently pumping 93-94 mph past veteran hitters and teams have pushed past the stage of A-ball lineups in Grapefruit League play.

The Jays aren’t expecting a Cy Young contender, but everyone has seen that upside. It’s a fact.

“I wouldn’t put anything past him, honestly,” Schneider said. "But you don’t want to put that on anyone, really. You want to just say go be the best that he can be. And the best that he can be just happens to be one of the best pitchers in the league.”

For Manoah, himself, the expectations and goals heading into the season are pretty simple — make the club and contribute.

“Just be healthy all year and go make 30-plus starts and be able to help this team win a World Series,” Manoah said.

“Every time I throw a baseball it’s to help this team win a World Series. They don’t give out World Series trophies in Triple-A, so I want to be with the team.”