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MLB SPOTLIGHT ON SEAN MANAEA

Saturday, March 16, 2013 • POSTED BY:  Teddy Mitrosilis | ESPN.com

You almost want to tap Sean Manaea on the shoulder, politely, and remind him to look both ways before crossing.

There's a flood of traffic heading his way now, beginning this Friday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, when he pitches against Minnesota in front of a full house of professional evaluators. As the weeks tick down to the MLB draft in June, more of those evaluators will come to critique every inch of Manaea's 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame, to look for reasons not to like him, and you wonder, by his tone and demeanor, if he's oblivious to how intense the examination will be.

"Yeah, I threw my bullpen today and just, uh, had a chillax day," the Indiana State left-hander said after practice two days before his scheduled start against Minnesota.

"Chillax" is an apt description of Manaea, and it would make some sense if he really was oblivious to the deluge of attention that will soon wash over the projected high-first-round pick in full force.

He grew up in Wanatah, Ind. -- a quiet place "surrounded by corn," he said -- with a Samoan father who served in Vietnam before settling in Indiana and grinding in the steel mills, and an American mother who spent her working years clocking hours in an aluminum-can factory, among other jobs.

Manaea loves baseball and has always been pretty good at it, but he was very raw as a high school player, and there were never any professional promises, of course. The big leagues were a dream, sure, a flickering light somewhere out there in a youthful realm of possibility. But in Wanatah, you do what Manaea's father, Faaloloi, and mother, Opal, did -- you work and enjoy your family and then work a little more. Some way, something good will turn out. It's the deepest shade of blue-collar stories.

But Manaea is self-aware; he's not oblivious to the stage he's stepping on this spring. It just feels that way because of his personality and the nonchalance with which he describes his personal life and baseball career.

"He's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy," Indiana State pitching coach Tyler Herbst said. "He's not that fierce warrior every day of the week."

Herbst didn't really know what he was getting in Manaea three years ago. He knew the Sycamores had a chance to get a talented kid, but Manaea was nothing like he is now. He had a big frame and a good arm, but he didn't have great command of his fastball or even one reliable secondary pitch. He might as well have come with an instruction manual.

Some schools passed on him because of that -- the lack of certainty surrounding his talents -- and other schools passed on Manaea because of his grades and the fear he wasn't committed enough to stay eligible at a big university.

"School just wasn't a high priority for him," Herbst said. "He didn't work at it. But [assistant coach Brian] Smiley saw him at a showcase and said we should keep an eye on him, and he's a guy we could have a chance to get. So we took a flier on a talented left-hander and hoped he'd get better in the classroom, and he did. He's been low-maintenance ever since."

It took Manaea until his senior year of high school -- almost too late in the recruiting cycle -- to understand the non-baseball responsibilities that come with chasing his baseball dream. He says his high school grades were due to pure laziness. He chose naps or video games before he chose homework. It was teenager stuff, not an actual character flaw.

So when he got to campus, got involved in the academic counseling program and adjusted relatively quickly, it wasn't a surprise. That pseudo-hurdle had been cleared, and now Herbst had a toy to play with. He showed Manaea a slider, and that pitch has continued to improve over the past two seasons. Then at the end of his sophomore season, when Manaea was searching for a third pitch, he asked roommate and fellow southpaw Tyler Pazik to show him his split-change grip. It was the first changeup grip that felt natural to him.

Manaea now had three legitimate weapons to take to the Cape Cod League, and his draft stock boomed. A mid-to-upper 90s fastball, a wipeout slider, a diving split-changeup -- the whole package peaked at the perfect time in the perfect place, as Manaea struck out 85 hitters in 57 1/3 innings last summer to put himself next to Stanford right-hander Mark Appel as the early leaders of the No. 1 overall discussion for the 2013 draft.

That buzz followed Manaea back to Terre Haute for his junior season. As the spotlight brightens, as the eager eyes of evaluators flock to Minneapolis this Friday, he continues to stay in his own world.

"When I pitch, inside I just feel chill," Manaea said. "I get a few songs in my head, and in between pitches, when I'm getting the ball back, I will sing those songs to myself. It keeps me in rhythm, and I have fun on the mound."

This is Manaea, a quirky lefty with an intuitive mind. He can sense when he's mentally unraveling in a game and understands when to stop thinking and start singing.

"He's not an analytical guy by any means, but he's curious," Herbst said. "If you want to make a point, you need to tell him why. Then he's on board. He's trying to understand."

Manaea says he's ignoring everything involving the draft, and you can believe him or not. He looks ahead even if he doesn't admit it -- there are small glimpses.

His father has told him and his brother Dane, who graduated from Purdue last year, stories about his native Samoa, how beautiful it is there. Manaea has never been and says that's the first vacation spot he's taking his brother "when I have the money." So yes, his eyes look forward as he tries so hard to keep his mind in the present.

On Friday, in his first big evaluation of the draft season, Manaea will be concerned with two things: Throwing straight gas and being straight chill.