MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The hope of a career playing baseball had West Virginia pitcher Alek Manoah chomping at the bit to get better this offseason.
The junior right-hander will be on the mound for the Mountaineers as they open the season Friday at Kennesaw State. Manoah is considered the ace of the staff, but it wasn’t easy for him as a sophomore in 2018 when he went 3-5 in eight starts and 23 appearances.
A 6-foot-6, 260-pounder, velocity was never the issue. Manoah’s biggest problem was command — he walked 28 batters, hit 15 others and threw seven wild pitches.
After pitching in the Cape Cod League last summer, Manoah feels he tamed his wildness.
“Getting to play against the best players in the country day in and day out, that exposure and just being able to go out there and get better day in and day out is really huge,” he said. “Being able to build off some of those adversities and some of that success just helps me create who I want to be as a pitcher.”
Who that is is a intimidating presence on the mound who throws a mid-90s fastball with a sharp-breaking slider and changeup.
Mountaineers coach Randy Mazey, who is serving as pitching coach this season after Dave Serrano and WVU “mutually parted ways,” believes Manoah has taken the next step.
“He’s got all three pitches going on really well right now and he has command of all three,” Mazey said. “The stuff is off the charts. He throws really hard, has a great changeup and a great slider. He’s kind of put it all together, and he’s cleaned up his body — that’s the first thing you’ve got to do. He’s done that and I think that’s what enabled him to turn a corner.”
It was a bumpy offseason for the pitching staff. Michael Grove, who sat out ast season recovering from Tommy John surgery, was supposed to be the top starter but decided to sign with the Dodgers after being drafted in the second round.
Isaiah Kearns came on strong toward the end of last season and posted a 4.27 ERA in 46 1/3 innings with 53 strikeouts, but he left the team to return home to Pennsylvania.
B.J. Myers, Shane Ennis, Carter Camp, Christian Young and Jacob Potock are also gone. Sophomore right-hander Cody Wood is out for the season with an injury. Those seven arms combined to pitch 252 2/3 innings a year ago.
A few familiar faces will be able to round out the weekend rotation in junior right-hander Kade Strowd and sophomore lefty Jackson Wolf. Junior Nick Snyder could handle the midweek responsibilities.
Strowd posted a 4-7 record in 13 starts in 2018 and will look to improve his 5.74 ERA. He had 61 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.
“Kade has started some games for us in the Big 12,” Mazey said. “Jackson has made a jump and is a big, tall left-hander who’s been throwing it pretty well. Nick had as good a fall for us as anybody and he’s very capable.”
Wolf, Snyder, senior Zach Reid and freshman Beau Lowry give Mazey other left-handed options, something the coach has lacked in his seven years at West Virginia.
Freshman Daniel Ouderkirk, who stands 6-foot-9, will start in the bullpen with Mazey hoping to turn him into a starter.
Closer Sam Kessler, a junior right-hander, returns after posting a team-best 2.86 ERA in 2018. He earned four wins and four saves in 25 appearances, struck out 32, issued 12 walks and gave up only one home run in 28 1/3 innings.
The loss of Braden Zarbnisky, out for the season with an undisclosed injury, shifts responsibilities in the bullpen.
“Depth will be an issue from when we go from starters to the back of the bullpen where Sam Kessler is gonna sit,” Mazey said. “We’re gonna need some new guys in that role to fill in some quality innings. That will dictate our success — how well those new guys pitch in that role.”