The “Throwin’ Samoan”, who was acquired in a trade that sent Ben Zobrist to the Kansas City Royals in 2015, made his major league facing the Houston Astros on April 29. Prior to being called up, Manaea was the top pitching prospect (No. 2 overall) in the organization, and No. 48 overall throughout the league, according to Baseball America.
Manaea allowed solid contact only once while featuring a fastball in the low-90s, a slightly lower than expected velocity, with a slider that was unhittable at times and a changeup.
Able to miss the sweet spot of Houston bats, the rookie’s struggles stemmed from regularly missing the strike zone.
Manager Bob Melvin was impressed by the outing nonetheless, saying the Astros lineup is a tough matchup for a young pitcher:
“There’s some nerves in your first start, no question. I thought overall, though, he pitched well. Maybe not the ball-strike ratio that he normally has. A couple walks. But for a first start, against that lineup, I though he was good.”
The baseball world was treated to its first helping of a matchup between young stars in the very first inning. After Astro leadoff man and 2014 AL batting champ Jose Altuve went down on a fly ball, and George Springer was caught stealing second, reigning rookie of the year 21-year-old Carlos Correa stepped in to face the 24-year-old lefty.
Getting Correa to chase a 3-2 slider in the dirt, Manaea won the first of what will be many showdowns, and end his first frame as a big leaguer.
After the game, Manaea said through a chuckle:
“He’s not a bad player. He’s pretty OK, from what I’ve heard. Just kidding, he’s really good, so it was pretty awesome.”
After watching his offense go down quickly in the bottom half, the rookie followed up his first career strike out by allowing his first run. Leaving a 1-1 fastball at the belt and on the inner half, Houston designated hitter Evan Gattis launched a long home run into the bleachers in left center.
The bomb would end up being the only well struck hit for the Astros.
Yonder Alonso, who became the star of the night with a three-run walk off homer, spoke highly of Manaea:
“Sean threw the ball well. … I was very impressed with him. He had a lot of first strikes, which is key. He was in command of the game. His poise was incredible. He was in control. I look forward to seeing him for the long haul.”
Manaea’s performance through five strong frames can be best described as effectively wild, as the hurler allowed as many walks (4) as hits. In his sixth and final inning, the 6-foot-5 245-pounder hit Springer in the back with a 94 MPH fastball, which perhaps kept the next batter, Correa, on his toes.
After throwing a slider in the dirt between the shortstop’s feet, Manaea threw back-to-back fastballs which were fouled off. He followed with another slider well off the plate inside, to which Correa responded by shaking his head and shooting a glance to the heavens.
The control issues came as something of a surprise, as the Indiana native boasted a 3.1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42 career minor league starts.
Manaea, who had a contingent of about 22 friends and family in attendance, did admit that debut nerves had something to do with his sporadic control:
“Oh yeah. Walking out for the first time with all the fans cheering as soon as I stepped out, people shouting for me. I can’t even tell you what that feels like.”
Before a 2-0 victory of the same Astros, Manaea told SFBay that he felt “great” just 12 hours after his 87-pitch debut.
Prior to Sunday’s third and final game of the series, Manaea took the bullpen mound for his normal throw-between day. Developing his normal routine with the major league club will undoubtedly go a long way in calming those nerves for his second start, in which he said the goal will be to throw more strikes and stay on the mound longer.