Oakland Athletics: Sean Manaea is back and he’s just as good as ever

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Sean Manaea #55 of the Oakland Athletics pitches during the second inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Sean Manaea #55 of the Oakland Athletics pitches during the second inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The highly-anticipated return of Sean Manaea for the Oakland Athletics happened yesterday. In his first start since shoulder surgery in 2018, the Throwin’ Samoan looked just like his old self.

OAKLAND, CA, April 21, 2018 – Sean Manaea looks into Jonathan Lucroy as the crowd of 35,067 gets to their feet. The Boston Red Sox fans, who had shown up en masse to witness the red-hot Sox improve there 17-2 record to start the year, are drowned out by raucous drums and cheering Oakland Athletics fans sensing history.

On his 108th pitch of the ballgame, Manaea threw a 2-0 breaking ball that resulted in a weak grounder right to Marcus Semien, who flipped it to Jed Lowrie standing on second to complete the night.

Sean Manaea had just thrown a no-hitter.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but there was something magical about that A’s team that had been mostly unimpressive to start the 2018 campaign.

Defying all logic, Sean Manaea went head to head with Chris Sale and the Red Sox — who were on an eight-game winning streak — and didn’t allow a single hit.

Two and a half years earlier, at the 2015 trade deadline, the Oakland A’s acquired Sean Manaea along with Aaron Brooks from the Kansas City Royals for super-utilityman Ben Zobrist.

Manaea was a captivating prospect at the time of the trade. Listed at 6-foot-5, the lefty was widely considered one of the top pitching prospects in his draft class prior to a hip injury.

There was no questioning his pitching repertoire, but there were concerns about his ability to consistently be on the mound and throw strikes.

He got his shot in 2016 and has held his own in the bigs ever since. Last season, Manaea posted a 12-9 record with a 3.59 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, 108 strikeouts, and 32 walks.

But in August 2018, in the midst the best year of his young career, Manaea would require shoulder surgery after noticeable dips in velocity.

The expectation was that Manaea would be on the mend for the entirety of the 2019 season.

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There were reports that the post-surgery prognosis was positive, but it was anyone’s guess whether the A’s would have their blooming ace return at the halfway point in the season, down the stretch of a playoff race, or not at all.

Finally, after nearly a year out of action, Manaea was back on the mound for the Oakland Athletics on Sunday.

His return, on paper, would be challenging, however. Manaea was scheduled to pitch against the New York Yankees, who at 89-48 were the best team in baseball. He would be pitching in the Bronx bandbox. He’d be looking for a win in the rubber match of the series.

And he looked as dominant as ever.

Manaea would face the Yankees lineup and set them down in order, one through nine. Despite being noticeably amped, he was painting the edges of the zone with his fastball and incorporating his secondary stuff well.

Any concern that Manaea would return to his hittable 88 mph fastball we saw last year was tossed away in the first inning when he consistently sat at 92 and worked up to 95 mph.

He had good movement on his fastball, which eluded Yankee bats all day long, even when Manaea chose to throw challenge pitches. He had swing-and-miss stuff that allowed him to work his way to four quick strikeouts in the first four innings.

Manaea ran into some trouble in the fifth inning, where he labored his way through 34 pitches. He walked the bases loaded before Matt Olson made a sensational play, diving to his right and throwing from a seated position to Manaea covering the bag to end the inning.

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In his first outing, Manaea would finish with five innings pitched, five strikeouts, three walks, one hit, and no runs allowed. The single hit he gave up was on a come-backer that nicked his glove and rolled into no man’s land.

There were plenty of positive takeaways from his outing — almost enough to ignore the fact that the A’s bullpen would implode and give up a four-run lead late in the game.

The Throwin’ Samoan seemed to have no issues early on with command. Sure, the fifth inning got out of hand with the walks, but he was making good pitches when he needed to. Manaea threw 44 strikes on 83 pitches and was pounding the zone with his fastball comparatively speaking.

While he threw plenty of four-seamers — 71% on the day — he also utilized his slider at a higher percentage to keep hitters off balance. The slider was one of his better pitches in his first outing of the season; it produced plenty of whiffs and generally kept batters uneasy for the first half of the game.

Manaea produced plenty of weak contact throughout the game, as well, especially in the form of flyouts and popouts in foul territory — both of which will be improved when he gets his first start back at Rickey Henderson Field.

The best part of all was that Manaea seemed cool, calm, and collected through all five innings of work. Even when the bases were loaded, he found a way out of it. If it weren’t his first start of the season, there’s probably a chance that Bob Melvin would have kept him out there for the sixth.

It wouldn’t hurt to go with one less inning of the bullpen pitching in future A’s games.

There were plenty of promising aspects to today’s start. While it could be frustrating, at times, to know that the A’s were taking their time with Manaea rehabbing in Triple-A, he has been well worth the wait.

Manaea proves to be a pivotal addition to a starting rotation that has frankly over-performed. While Mike Fiers has been the ace this season, there’s a possibility Manaea might take the slab in game two of a five-game playoff series.

With a number of starting pitchers on the roster at the current moment — as well as heading into next season — Manaea adds another component to an already competitive position on the team. That isn’t a bad thing at all.

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The Oakland A’s might consider going with a six-man rotation, but it’s more likely that they’ll slot Chris Bassitt in the bullpen and pray to the baseball gods that he can work a clean inning in relief.

When it comes to next season, Manaea will surely be a favorite for the front-end of the rotation to go along with superstar-in-the-making Jesus Luzardo.

They’ll be joined by three of Mike Fiers, A.J. Puk, Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt, Daniel Mengden, James Kaprielian, Grant Holmes, Jharel Cotton

You get the point.

The fact that Sean Manaea is back at all is a good thing. The fact that he’s being inserted into this starting rotation during a tight Wild Card race is even better. The A’s will Sean Manaea if they want to get into the playoffs this year.

Beyond his ability, he supplies a noticeable lift in the dugout’s morale anytime that he’s around. At just 27-years-old, he serves as a sort of veteran presence that his teammates seem to flock toward.

He carries the kind of unquantifiable magic that you might be able to sense but will never see show up in a stat sheet.

Next. Oakland Athletics: What Sheldon Neuse’s call-up means for the future of the team and baseball. dark

And he’s got one of the best heads of hair in baseball to go along with a sick ‘stache.

What more could you want?