Blue Jays: Alek Manoah exceeds even high expectations in his MLB debut

May 27, 2021; Bronx, New York, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alex Manoah (6) reacts after the third out in the bottom of the sixth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
May 27, 2021; Bronx, New York, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alex Manoah (6) reacts after the third out in the bottom of the sixth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports /

Alek Manoah was billed as a uber-talented prospect before throwing a pitch in the big leagues. But even that sky-high hype didn’t match his debut performance

The Alek Manoah hype machine that rolled into a warm, sunny afternoon at Yankee Stadium didn’t even come close to matching what this 6-foot-6 Toronto Blue Jays right-hander actually did.

Whatever expectations that were placed on Manoah, whatever hopes and dreams the Blue Jays fan base placed on this prospect with just 35 total innings of professional experience, he vastly exceeded them. Manoah threw six shutout innings against the Yankees, giving up two hits while striking out seven in a 2-0 Blue Jays victory to begin a doubleheader on Thursday.

With about 20 family and friends, including his exuberant and emotional mother Susana, sitting in the stands, Manoah took the mound for the first time in his big-league career and walked DJ LeMahieu on four pitches. Was he tense? Were the expectations weighing too heavily on him? An emphatic no.

He struck out Rougned Odor on three pitches, the last swinging at a changeup that darted out of the zone. The next batter, Aaron Judge, struck out on a 97 mph fastball with one of the most awkward and uncomfortable swings the former All-Star is ever likely to make. Manoah got out of the inning unscathed, which would soon become a recurring theme in this game.

“I think those first four pitches were the most nervous, you know, the most excitement I had all day,” he said following the game. “After those four it was kind of just like, I don’t want to suck. So just lock it in right here and let’s start pitching. Forget about everything else, we’ve got to pitch.”

Lock it in, he did. Only Miguel Andujar managed to collect a hit off him, with singles in the second and fifth innings, respectively. The Yankees had only two hard-hit balls, a fly out by Gleyber Torres in the first that Randal Grichuk nearly lost in the sun, and a fly ball hit by Judge, representing the tying run, in the sixth that Grichuk comfortably settled under. The lineup had an average exit velocity of just over 80 mph against Manoah; they hit three balls all game above 90 mph, and seven below 85 mph.

Manoah has always been able to throw hard, with 22 pitches on Thursday coming in at 95 mph or more. He did it with both four-seamer fastballs (17 at 95 or more) and sinkers (five). But it was his changeup, the “weak” pitch in his arsenal next to his two fastballs and slider, that was a pleasant surprise. Of the 13 he threw, eight were strikes. None went for a base hit.

“It felt really good. A lot of people say it’s the fourth pitch, but for me, I’ve got a lot of confidence in it. Being able to throw it to lefties and righties. It’s going to be huge for me,” he said. “Just continue to understand hitter’s approaches, hitter’s swings. When it’s going to be good and just set it up for success…I think I was able to do that today.”

That’s what got Manoah to this point in his career: his ability to pinpoint an area of his game that needed improvement and work tirelessly to do it. He was a non-prospect, undrafted out of a Homestead, Florida, high school. His ERA as a college sophomore at West Virginia was over four. When he went to Chatham in the Cape Cod League, he refined his slider and worked on controlling his fastball, throwing bullpen session after bullpen session until he got it right. A year later, the Blue Jays made him the 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Manoah’s debut performance makes history

That was the first chapter of his baseball story. The second is just now being written into the record books. He’s only the second pitcher in Blue Jays history to throw six shutout innings in his Major League debut, joining Mauro Gozzo in 1989. He’s the first pitcher to shutout the Yankees over at least six innings in his debut since Brian Sikorski in 2000.

But there is a cautionary tale hidden in there, as well. Gozzo made just two more starts for the Blue Jays and won seven games in his career; Sikorski finished his career 4-5. One good start to begin a career doesn’t guarantee any future success.

Manoah, though, is different. The Blue Jays trusted him to throw 88 pitches on Wednesday. Other than one start by Anthony Kay, only Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, and Steven Matz have thrown that many in a game for the Blue Jays this season. They are the club’s top-three starting pitchers. Manoah, if he keeps pitching as he did in the Bronx, will join them.

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He had all the high expectations commensurate with his domination of the minor leagues this season. But this? His first start is more than the Blue Jays and their fan base could’ve possibly asked for. And there’s plenty more to come.