Barber: Sean Manaea keeping A's in playoff hunt

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OAKLAND — The A’s starting rotation hasn’t really been a rotation at all this season. It has been more of a roulette wheel, with the little ball landing on names seemingly at random. Twelve different pitchers have started for the A’s in 2018, and we’re barely into August.

And yet …

And yet the team is now 64-46 and, finally, tied with the Mariners for the second American League wild-card spot. They caught Seattle on Wednesday, shortly after pounding the Toronto Blue Jays 8-3 to complete a three-game sweep.

The rotational inconsistencies have not doomed the A’s, because they have other strengths to compensate, including massive home run power, a vicious bullpen and good — sometimes spectacular — defense.

They also have Sean Manaea, which is proving to be a key to the ’18 season. As other starting pitchers have bounced back and forth from Triple-A, or from the disabled list, Manaea has taken his turn again and again. And he has been a rock. He won again Wednesday, leaving in the seventh inning with a 7-0 lead, and is now 10-7 on the year.

“You need an ace, you need a guy you know is gonna be out there every fifth day, and give you innings every fifth day,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said after the win. “And on top of that, the performance has been there, too. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”

Look at the A’s leaders in innings pitched this season. Manaea is first on the list, not surprisingly. Second is Daniel Mengden, who is currently at Triple-A Nashville in the final stage of a foot-injury rehab. Third is veteran starter Trevor Cahill, who hasn’t pitched more than six innings since May. Fourth is Yusmeiro Petit, a middle reliever. Fifth is Frankie Montas, another guy pitching in Nashville. Then come Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino and Emilio Pagan, all relievers. No. 9 on the list is Andrew Triggs, who is on the 60-day disabled list with nerve irritation. That’s not how your innings chart is supposed to look.

Upon reflection, Melvin probably does know where the A’s would be without Manaea. And the answer is not “tied for a playoff spot.”

“Look, this been kind of a musical chairs here this year with our starters,” noted Manaea’s catcher, Jonathan Lucroy.

Manaea was solid Wednesday, but he didn’t exactly blow batters away. He threw 99 pitches in just over six innings. He gave up five hits and walked a couple guys. In other words, it was typical Sean Manaea.

“I always tell guys, ‘Look, you’re not gonna be perfect. You’re gonna give up a hit, most likely. Guys are gonna hit balls hard off you,’” said Lucroy, who has a catcher’s tough-guy persona and begins a lot of sentences with the word “Look.” “But minimize the damage, keep the runs off the board, make big pitches when you have to, don’t try to be perfect. And he did that today.”

He does it most days. Manaea threw a no-hitter against the potent Red Sox on Apr. 21. Lucroy has a framed photo of him and Manaea, taken after that game, sitting on a shelf next to his locker. But that was the pitcher’s only scoreless outing of the season. Even Wednesday’s 1-run stat line (reliever J.B. Wendelken allowed an inherited runner to score) was an outlier. Manaea generally throws five to seven innings and allows two or three runs. With Oakland’s bullpen, that’s good enough.

Manaea is pitching better than ever this year. He currently has one of the best WHIPs (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in the American League, right around 1.00. His ERA has dipped to 3.38. But he’s working harder than ever to get those results.

According to the site, Manaea hit a maximum velocity of 98.3 mph in 2016, his rookie season. Last year he topped out at 96.7. And this year it has fallen again, to about 95.0. But even that doesn’t reflect the reality of his arm strength. Wednesday, like most days, Manaea’s fastball generally landed in the range of 88 to 91 miles per hour.

And yet he is getting outs. Lots of them.

“He’s learned how to pitch a little bit differently,” Melvin said. “With maybe not 97 (mph), and a better slider now. He’s a true three-pitch guy and he keeps you off-balance.”

That third pitch is the key. It’s his changeup. Lucroy calls it Manaea’s “equalizer.” After the Blue Jays game, I checked the data on’s pitch tracker, and I counted 27 changeups from Manaea. Only one of them resulted in a hit. Seven of Manaea’s changeups were balls, four were strikes, five were foul balls and no less than 10 resulted in outs. Four of those were strikeout pitches; he fooled Toronto leadoff hitter Randall Grichuk in the third inning, Brandon Drury in the third, Teoscar Hernandez in the fifth and slugger Justin Smoak in the sixth.

“Because he’s pitching,” Lucroy explained. “There’s a difference between pitching and throwing. Greg Maddux told me one time that every pitch he threw, he threw with the intent of getting the hitter out. Throwers don’t do that. Pitchers do that. And Sean’s a pitcher.”

Manaea is just 26 years old, but he approaches the game with Maddux-esque savvy. And he is highly accurate, his other great strength. Manaea walked two batters Wednesday. Only twice this season, in 22 starts, has he walked more than that, and never more than four.

Manaea’s steadiness is crucial to the A’s moving forward. With occasional exceptions, these guys will continue to hit. The Oakland bullpen is too deep and too versatile to expect an implosion.

This team should remain in a duel with Seattle for a wild-card berth, and still hasn’t given up on catching the first-place Houston Astros, who are five games ahead as of Wednesday night.

The only question here is the starting rotation. No offense to Cahill or Mengden or Brett Anderson or Edwin Jackson, but Melvin can’t rely on any of them for consistent quality starts between now and October.

But he can rely on Manaea, his reluctant star.

“Being the ace doesn’t really mean much to me,” Manaea said after beating the Blue Jays. “It’s a team effort.”

Lucroy was willing to lay a bit more on Manaea’s shoulders.

“It means a lot having one guy that’s still here and still staying strong,” the catcher said. “And I have to say that Sean’s the ace. I have to believe that. And I want him to believe it, too.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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