The whispers have become shouts, and former South Dade High right-hander Alek Manoah has become a hot topic among baseball scouts … and even umpires.
Manoah, now a star at West Virginia University, is 6-7 and 265 pounds, and he has a tattoo that covers most of his right arm, depicting Jesus Christ on the cross. Manoah’s fastball has reached 97 mph, and when he is headed downhill from the mound, batters are looking up at that size, that tattoo and then a fleeting glimpse at the baseball as it is propelled forward.
“Sometimes an ump will whisper in my ear: ‘They’re not going to hit [Manoah],’” WVU catcher Ivan Gonzalez said. “’They have no chance.’”
Erik Manoah, who is Alek’s older brother and pitches in Class-A ball for the Los Angeles Angels organization, came home to the Miami area this past December and had similar observations.
“I can’t catch you anymore,” Erik told Alek. “You throw too hard.”
A lot of batters in college baseball will agree. Manoah is 6-3 this season with a 2.07 ERA. Batters are hitting just .192 against him, and he has struck out 108 batters in 82 2/3 innings, allowing just three homers.
Baseball America’s latest mock draft has Manoah going 10th overall. If that holds, Manoah, a 21-year-old junior, is set to become a first-round pick June 3 during the 2019 MLB Draft.
“I don’t think I would be shocked,” Manoah said when asked how he would react. “It’s something I’ve worked for and could be a reality, but it would also be overwhelming considering everything I’ve gone through with my family. I’m eager to put on a pro jersey.”
Manoah isn’t short on confidence.
“I plan to play 10 years in the big leagues,” he said, “and then hop in the broadcast booth with Alex Rodriguez.”
THE LONG ROAD UP
Manoah, a Miami native who speaks Spanish and has four Cuban-born grandparents, didn’t have an easy childhood.
The biggest influence on his life has been his mother, Susana Lluch, who did everything for her sons, including sitting on a bucket and feeding baseballs into the swings of Alek and Erik when they were kids.
Manoah was in the eighth grade when his parents divorced, and he, Erik and Susana ended up moving from Kendall to Homestead.
There were difficulties, but they persevered.
As a sophomore in 2014, Alek helped South Dade and coach Fred Burnside win the Class 8A state title … as a first baseman. Erik, who was the star pitcher at the time, tossed a 1-0 complete-game shutout in the state semifinal, and then he pitched 1 1/3 innings for the save in the championship game the next day.
Alek, who had an RBI single to help beat Valrico Bloomingdale 3-1 in the final, remembers fondly how that game ended.
“I was the first one to tackle my brother,” Alek said. “It was a pop fly to left, but I didn’t even look. As soon as the ball was hit, I started running toward my brother.
“We ended up at the bottom of the dogpile. We were suffocating. … It was the best memory.”
After Erik graduated and signed with the New York Mets as a 13th-round draft pick, Alek started to pitch more. Still, he was lightly recruited until coaches Steve Loureiro and Anthony Dye — who were with his Atlanta Blue Jays travel team — made some technique adjustments.
All of a sudden, Manoah was throwing 95 mph. FIU had initial interest in Manoah, but that stopped when the assistant coach who was recruiting him left for another job. Miami didn’t try to recruit him, Manoah said, until after he had committed to WVU.
Instead, it was Auburn where Manoah initially had interest.
“But I kept getting signs from God that told me to go to West Virginia,” Manoah said.
Indeed, after an enjoyable recruiting trip to Auburn, Manoah flew home. By the time he landed, he got the news that Auburn’s coaching staff had been fired.
When that story broke, Mississippi State turned up its recruiting efforts, but Manoah didn’t feel the vibe. Instead, he focused on West Virginia, where coach Randy Mazey impressed him by inviting him to a family cookout rather than taking him to some fancy steakhouse.
“I prayed about it,” Manoah said. “Then I saw my brother had left a pair of shorts in the bathroom, and I could see the West Virginia logo. He had gotten those shorts from a friend in pro ball, but, to me, it was like God telling me where to sign. I told my mom I had decided on West Virginia, and she cried because the signs were so clear.”
OFF TO WEST VIRGINIA
Manoah has been a perfect fit in West Virginia — a mountain of a man in the Mountaineer state. His nickname is “AK” — taking the first and last letters of his given name. He also wears jersey number 47 … as in AK-47.
Manoah was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman team in 2017, going 1-1 with a 3.07 ERA in 19 appearances, including 10 starts, as West Virginia made its most recent regional.
Last year, he went 3-5 with a 4.00 ERA in 23 appearances, including eight starts.
This season, Manoah has upped his game. On April 5, he pitched eight scoreless innings to beat Oklahoma State, allowing just three hits, walking none and striking out 11. The next Friday, he pitched a four-hit shutout to beat Texas Tech 2-0, striking out 15 and walking none. Then, on April 20, he shut out Kansas 1-0, striking out 15, walking none and allowing three hits.
“He’s as good a pitcher as I’ve coached in 30 years,” Mazey said. “I stopped trying to predict the draft years ago, but I can’t imagine there’s a better pitcher in college baseball.”
Gonzalez, WVU’s senior catcher, recalls the first time he met Manoah.
“I shook his hand,” Gonzalez said. “His hand wrapped around my entire forearm, and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Gonzalez, who is of Mexican descent and also speaks Spanish, has built a good rapport with Manoah — his roommate — and has seen his progression the past three years. In fact, on game-day mornings, Manoah will excitedly jump on Gonzalez’s bed and yell, “Let’s go!”
Manoah came to WVU as a pitcher/hitter, and he still puts on a show during batting practice, blasting baseballs over the fence in left field and onto the front porch of the furniture store across the street from the stadium.
But Manoah went just 1 for 20 in his first two years as a hitter. This season, he gave up trying to hit and also got in much better shape, and those decisions — plus a slider he added this past summer in the Cape Cod League — have led to his stock rising.
“The jump he has made has been amazing,” Gonzalez said. “He used to be a little overweight. But he’s not eating McDonald’s at 2 a.m. anymore. He looks good in his uniform now.
“In the weight room, he likes to prove you wrong. We call him out just to see what he can do, and then he puts up close to 500 pounds. It’s that Miami swagger coming out of him.”
Mazey sees a big future for Manoah.
“Even if Alek only threw 86 [mph], he could get outs because of the command he has of his fastball, changeup and slider,” Mazey said. “But when you add his velocity to three pitches that are well above average at this level, it’s special.
“He’s always going to have to work to make sure he’s in condition. But, right now, he can throw pitch No. 120 just as hard as his first one.”
WVU, 28-17 entering this week, is projected to host an NCAA regional for the first time in school history.
Manoah — a fan favorite in Morgantown — feels blessed at his good fortune, and a symbol of his faith is etched in ink all over his valuable right arm.
“It’s like my hand is His hand,” Manoah said when asked about his tattoo. “Every step I take, God is guiding me.”