MORGANTOWN — What makes Alek Manoah, West Virginia’s hard-throwing right-hander destined to become a first-round draft pick in the June 3-5 Major League baseball draft, tick?
You might answer it with a question, like what makes steel hard? What makes tornadoes swirl, the wind blow, storms rage and fire burn?
To find an answer, you go to the man who knows him best — West Virginia baseball coach Randy Mazey — and what better time after he had gutted out eight torturous innings in which he threw 126 pitchers to beat Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament Thursday night.
Think about that for a moment. We live in an age where the major leaguers, men who earn thousands of dollars per start, millions of dollars per year, rarely are allowed to throw 100 pitches, leaving games with no-hitters in progress.
But Alek Manoah threw 126 — and during a long delay in the seventh inning, trotted down to the bullpen to stay loose by throwing some more.
“We train our guys to throw up to 130 pitches. We feel if you are a starting pitcher in the Big 12, between our trainer and our strength coach and the work we do, we feel our guys can do that,” Mazey said.
But few do and fewer yet do it the way Manoah does it.
“He just happens to be as good at pitch 125 as he is at pitch 1,” Mazey said.
Maybe even better, for this is a driven athlete.
“When you get in the middle of the game, his pride kicks in, his competitiveness kicks in and he gets better. I’ve never had a guy do that to that degree, to get so much better throughout the game,” Mazey said.
To emphasize his point, he noted a discussion in the middle of the fifth inning of what was then a tense game in which he had already thrown 75 pitches.
“He came up to me in the middle of the fifth inning and said, ‘We got this. I think their guy is getting tired and I’m getting better,’” Mazey said. “I think that attitude tells his teammates that and it filters through the whole dugout.”
“They think, ‘If he can be like that, why can’t we be like that?’ That’s why we play so much better when he pitches. He makes us play better.”
Part of it is in his approach.
Against Texas Tech, he was often in trouble, not really sharp. True, he walked only one batter but those 126 pitches in eight innings say a lot and he did hit four batters.
Yet, with runners in scoring position, Texas Tech couldn’t get a hit all game.
Why doesn’t he crack?
“It’s the same thing when there’s nobody on. I’m just trying to make pitches and get someone out,” he explained before cracking, “hopefully Brandon White makes a couple of crazy catches and throws someone out. “
And that was just what his magical centerfielder did in this game ... maybe even in every game.
White’s performance was so good that on Friday night he probably enjoyed his best dinner of the week, courtesy of Manoah, for after he made his most amazing diving catch, Manoah approached him in the dugout.
“Thank you,” he said, putting his arm around him. “I’ll get you a steak.”
The thing that is most impressive is that you would never have imagined this if you had seen Manoah pitch last season. He didn’t have the command he has now, didn’t have the complimentary change up to go with his fast ball and slider.
He spent the summer remaking himself, as a pitcher, as a person, as a competitor.
“I’ve had a lot of pitchers in 30 years of coaching and a lot of really good ones,” said Mazey. “I had Jake Arrieta at TCU and Andrew Cashner who is in the Orioles rotation and pitching real well.
“I’ve had a lot of good guys but for the whole package Alek Manoah is arguably the best one I’ve had. With the stuff he has, the velocity he has, he has three pitches he can throw for strikes at any time and on top of that the competitiveness, the fire, the desire and commitment and the selflessness,” Mazey said.
“You don’t understand. The second half of this season, that guy has every reason to go out there and pitch for himself because next Monday is draft day. It’s been a big part of this season for him.
“For him to just go out there and throw his heart on the field for the Mountaineers in spite of that shows a lot about what kind of person he is, that he’s still fighting for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back ... and that’s just a testament to him.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.