Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah gets stronger at the best time

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BALTIMORE — When Alek Manoah, or the Big Cat as his manager likes to call him, heads up the hill to the Camden Yards mound on Wednesday, it will be in another one of the elevated play situations that fills his tank.

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The bigger the stage, the better for a big-armed young pitcher who is quickly earning a reputation as one of the best in the game.

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From the All-Star Game in July to the showdown with Gerrit Cole at Yankee Stadium last month, to his impressive durability, Manoah shines in the spotlight.

So with a chance perhaps not to bury but certainly to mutilate the Orioles’ postseason chances in the final of this four-game series, well, there are few places he’d rather be than on the mound of Camden Yards.

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“It’s huge, being here in great moments trying to help my team get to where we want to go,” Manoah said in an interview. “That’s why I work so hard. This time of year. These kind of games.

This approach has earned Manoah the admiration of his teammates and the confidence of the coaching staff, a rarity for a starter working his first full year in the majors.

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“His mindset is different,” Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said. “He’s just a competitive guy. He loves the limelight. He loves being out there in the big game. You can tell he’s not afraid of it at all.

“He is happy about it. From day one, he hasn’t been shy about playing the big game.”

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Nor did he shy away from a heavy workload. In fact, the 24-year-old decided to go deeper in games, skip the injured list and rack up innings like no Toronto starter has in years.

With 163 innings pitched before the start of Wednesday, Manoah has a chance to become the first Jays starter to hit 200 innings in a season since Marcus Stroman hit 201 in 2017.

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The prospect of reaching it will depend on whether Manoah has five starts remaining or six starts remaining, a split likely tied to the importance of the final three games of the season.

Achieving this milestone – or at least coming in the shadow of it – is important for a workaholic like Manoah, who thrives on going deeper into games.

“It would mean a lot,” Manoah said. “It means you’re a guy who can go out there and your teammates are counting on you to go deeper in games. I’m proud to be able to do that and I’m working to improve as I throw.

Schneider and Walker err on the side of caution with Manoah’s workload — very much like the Blue Jays — which often leads to familiar conversation when the manager goes to the mound late in a game to call it a night.

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“He said, ‘I have at least one more (run),’ which Alek always says,” Schneider said of one such visit last Friday in Pittsburgh.

That doesn’t mean the Jays don’t believe Manoah can handle him — they just want him to be at his best for the big missions ahead of him.

“He hits new career heights every time he comes out and I think his stuff is so good,” Schneider said. “You trust him in the big spots, whether it’s the third or fourth time (via order) or whatever.

“He’s really proven himself when it’s time to go for a throw, he’s really good at it. You trust him. Doing what he does is just a good stepping stone as we enter September.

Manoah doesn’t take anything for granted, however, altering his workload to handle the rigors of a full MLB season. He said between starts he relies on long pitching sessions rather than bullpen sessions.

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“It helps keep my arm loose and opens up my shoulders,” Manoah said. “I think it’s the right amount of work to stay strong at this part of the season.”

Wednesday’s assignment will be Manoah’s 27th start of the season and he is currently working his way through one of his best streaks of the season. To wit: The big man has allowed just two earned runs in 20.1 innings in his previous three starts.

“He’s a big, physical guy and he takes care of himself,” Walker said. “His routine has been outstanding this year. He did a great job with his arm care and maintained his stuff throughout the season.

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“He’s a guy who just doesn’t seem to let his stuff down. In fact, he’s getting stronger. He shows all the signs of a guy who does everything right when you get to that point in the season and you have looking extremely strong for the home straight.

And he did it his way, letting his larger-than-life personality blossom with his talent. The day before his previous start, he was on the sidelines at Heinz Field as his alma mater, West Virginia, took on Pitt in the Backyard Brawl.

The next afternoon he delivered one of his best outings of the season.

“I think (his teammates) need to (feed on Manoah’s energy),” Schneider said. “Not only what he does on the mound, but his energy between innings when he throws, which is very unique.

“He’s in the middle of everything.”

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