TERRE HAUTE —
When Sean Manaea’s train arrived at Indiana State’s station, there was no way of knowing whether it would be his last stop or not.
Undrafted out of high school, Manaea personified raw material on the mound. The potential was there to mold him into a special pitcher, but the southpaw hadn’t realized his potential yet.
As time went on, the locomotive was primed. He had good strikeout stuff during his freshman year, but didn’t have command. The command emerged during ISU’s 2012 Missouri Valley Conference championship campaign as he solidified his place as the Sycamores’ Saturday starter … but with Friday starter stuff.
Manaea’s 2012 season was stellar — 5-3, 3.34 earned-run average and 115 strikeouts — and he knew his train was destined to move on to a higher station when the Cape Cod League came calling last summer. Getting that call to play at Cape Cod affirmed everything Manaea had done to that point in his career. It was full steam ahead.
“The past two seasons I was here, I was down on myself. When I got to the Cape, I thought to myself, ‘I’m good. I should definitely be here.’ No matter what happens, it’s still a game I’ve been playing since I was 6. That really helped my mentality,” Manaea said.
The Wanatah native made the most of his chance. He was 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA at Hyannis and set a Cape Cod League record with 85 strikeouts against just seven walks. He won the Top Pitcher and Outstanding Pro Prospect Awards. He was a sensation.
“When I had my ups and downs I asked myself, ‘Should I really being going to the Cape this year?’ Am I good enough to be out there? When I got there I threw all of the doubt out of my mind,” Manaea said.
Now Indiana State is likely a mere way station as his train rolls to the big show.
Manaea’s Cape Cod performance, plus his excellence as a Sycamore, has him primed to be one of the top draft picks — perhaps the top draft pick — in June’s 2013 Major League Baseball draft. Some baseball publications have had him chosen as the top pick or the second pick (owned by the Chicago Cubs).
He has the potential to be the highest-drafted Sycamore in any sport in school history. Basketball legend Larry Bird was drafted sixth overall in the 1978 NBA Draft.
Given his phenom status, Manaea has already been the subject of intense interest during the offseason. His throwing sessions during fall practice drew scouts from nearly every Major League Baseball franchise, as many as 60 at a time.
The national attention won’t cease as he enters what is likely to be his final collegiate season. Manaea has been named a Preseason All-American by three different bodies — including Baseball America.
Manaea is a quiet person who likes to let his pitching do the talking. While he’s already dealt with most of the trappings of his success among baseball cognoscenti, he hasn’t yet dealt with the national media attention that usually doesn’t come to high-end draft prospects until the college season starts.
Is he ready for it?
“I’m not really worried about it now. I just want to help my team out. Whatever happens in the draft happens,” Manaea said. “I saw the attention in the Cape. When I’m on the mound, I don’t notice it much.”
ISU coach Rick Heller feels his role is to keep as much pressure off Manaea as possible.
“The good thing is he dealt with it in the summer. If it was all just happening now? We’d be more nervous. He’s gone through the interviews. He’s gone through the agents wanting to talk to him. A lot of that is kind of finished,” Heller said.
“The way we handled it was to let the scouts interview him over a very short period of time [in the fall] so he could play baseball in the spring. I think the way we’ve managed this is going to release the pressure on Sean,” Heller added.
While his own raw talent and his Cape Cod experience is what has had scouts drooling, Manaea has learned a lot during his time at ISU. Heller and pitching coach Tyler Herbst have been patient with Manaea, allowing him to grow without too much pressure. Heller also refined Manaea’s otherworldly pickoff move.
“If I didn’t have the coaches I have here, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’ve learned a lot. When I had more downs than ups, they believed in me and let me pitch. I’m thankful for that and all my teammates here,” Manaea said.
Manaea will be ISU’s Friday starter this season. The Friday night lights will definitely be on Manaea, perhaps more so than any other athlete in recent ISU history.