Oct. 6, 2016
By Jake Maier
Jeff Manship watched from the visitor’s bullpen at Comerica Park as Cleveland’s Cody Allen blew a fastball by Detroit’s Cameron Maybin to seal a 7-4 win over the Tigers. The victory vaulted the Indians to their first American League Central crown in nine years and for Manship, a former ace of the Irish pitching staff, the moment was the pinnacle of an incredible resurgence.
The 2016 season was the first Manship spent as a season-long contributor to a big league club and he couldn’t be happier.
“This year has been incredible,” Manship remarked. “Just being here from the very beginning to where we are at right now and going through all the highs and lows that we have had to get to this point.”
Out of the bullpen, Manship played a pivotal role for the Indians, who amassed 94 wins. Throughout the season, the team’s pitching staff was consistently plagued with injuries, forcing them to rely heavily on Manship as a middle relief arm.
Manship’s journey to the Indians’ postseason roster was not an easy one. In fact, his story is one of gritty persistence and resounding resilience. The seventh year veteran out of San Antonio, Texas, was once a high school prospect sitting in the upper echelons of many MLB draft boards. However, only two seasons ago, he was looking at the end of a very brief professional career.
In 2003, Manship had it all. He was widely regarded as the top prospect in Texas and Baseball America pegged him as the third best high school prospect in the nation behind two familiar names, his current Indians teammate Andrew Miller and Kansas City’s Ian Kennedy. Professional baseball seemed to be the likely landing spot for Manship after his graduation from Ronald Reagan High School in San Antonio, as Baseball America rated him as the 13th draft prospect on a list of all players eligible for the draft. With a lucrative contract certain to come with a high pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, why did he end up signing a commitment to Notre Dame?
As Manship was rising to the top of the nation’s prospect ratings, Notre Dame baseball was building a reputation of its own. In 2002, Notre Dame defeated top seed Florida State in the Tallahassee Super Regional to secure a birth in the College World Series, the program’s first berth in Omaha since 1957. Later that summer, Manship was playing summer ball when Greg Lopez, Jeff’s roommate and future Irish shortstop, mentioned that he should consider playing his college ball in South Bend, a suggestion that seemed odd to the Texas native.
“Coming out of high school, I really didn’t know anything about Notre Dame baseball.” Manship said, “Down in Texas you don’t hear much about Notre Dame, you hear about the UT’s the Rice’s, the (Texas) A&M’s.”
Manship took the advice from Lopez and scheduled an official visit to see what Notre Dame and Irish head coach Paul Manieri had to offer. Jeff wanted a degree in the event that baseball didn’t work out and Notre Dame fit the bill.
“Paul Manieri would always say that Notre Dame was special,” recalled Manship. “As an 18 year old kid, I’m thinking ‘Ok, whatever.’ When I actually visited, I remember seeing everything and realizing that Notre Dame was absolutely a special place. I remember seeing how pretty the campus was. I think everybody sees that right away. I also got to be around the team and l loved how they treated all the prospects that they wanted to come there. They did a great job hosting us. I liked how the coaches interacted with everybody. It was definitely a special place.”
The trip went well, prompting Manship to give Mainieri his commitment, making him one of the biggest catches in Notre Dame baseball history. Many MLB front offices took him off of their draft boards. Despite his commitment to take his talents to South Bend, the Arizona Diamondbacks called Manship’s name with the second-to-last pick in the 2003 player draft, as a last ditch effort to pluck him from Notre Dame’s recruiting class.
“I had the chance to be drafted higher, but I told the scouts that I was most likely going to go to college. They made an effort to try to work something out. My mom didn’t tell me at the time, but they had called and made an offer and she said, ‘no, he’s going to college.’ In the end I was really happy that had happened. I’m glad I spent my time - when I was eighteen to twenty-one - at the University of Notre Dame rather than in pro-ball somewhere in Florida or the Gulf Coast League or Arizona League as a young kid. Even with a lot of money at the time, none of those were places I wanted to grow up in.”
Shortly after he moved north to Indiana, his baseball career made a turn south. After blowing out his arm playing with USA Baseball over the summer, Manship underwent reconstructive elbow surgery before his freshman season even began, putting his entire college career in jeopardy. With an uncertain future, other coaches might have given up on Manship, but Mainieri refused to give up on his star pitcher.
“One of the greatest things was that coach Mainieri stuck with me.” Jeff says. “He definitely could have pulled my scholarship and said ‘Hey, I’m sorry that things didn’t work out, we just don’t know what we are going to get from you,’ but they stuck by me when I had my surgery. That was comforting, knowing that I would get through this. Even more comforting was understanding the recovery rate for that procedure and knowing that if I worked hard, I could get back and be myself, if not better. The training staff that Notre Dame had at the time was phenomenal and together with the coaches, they got me right and back to being myself.”
Manship battled an unrelated injury as a junior before being named BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year as a junior in 2006. It was then MLB came calling again. Manship was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 14th round of the 2006 free agent draft. This time he chose to sign.
“The opportunity was good,” explained Manship, “I was drafted by a great organization and I felt like it was my time to sign. We ended up negotiating a deal that I thought was good for me. I was able to work something out where I came back the next two falls and finished my degree. The Twins were definitely grateful that I was doing that and they didn’t put up any fight against it. They wanted me to finish my degree. I remember negotiating my first semester because the end of the season conflicted with the start of the school year, so I remember leaving the team early. I signed late and I started in August so I only played two to three weeks tops in my first season with my Twins.”
He made his major league debut in 2009, but the career he envisioned as a top prospect back in high school never really took off. The Twins made the playoffs in both 2009 and 2010 but Manship made only a few appearances in each season and was left off of the playoff roster both times.
In 2012, the Twins parted ways with Manship. After brief stints with the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies, it appeared doubtful at the conclusion of the 2014 season that he would ever prove himself in the major leagues. Following the disastrous 2014 season with the Phillies, in which he posted an ERA of 6.65 in 23 innings, his lowest since 2010, Manship’s career looked to be over.
“I was looking elsewhere, beyond baseball, at that point,” said Manship. “Things hadn’t been going all that well at that point and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I never got signed by another team.”
This wasn’t the end for Manship. As fate would have it, a gamble by the Cleveland front office and some advice from an old mentor changed everything.
“I was definitely very happy when the Indians came calling because I knew what a great organization that was, having played against them and their minor league teams when I was with the Twins’ organization. It was an organization that I had a lot of respect for. I was really happy that they came calling and that things worked out for us.”
Manship spent the offseason prior to the 2015 campaign training at the University of Texas with longtime UT pitching coach Skip Johnson. A few years earlier, Johnson had given a small piece of advice to Manship, saying that he should switch to the other side of the rubber if he found himself struggling during a game, changing the perception from hitters a bit.
Manship, who dealt from the first base side of the rubber never heeded the pointer until he began searching for a way to salvage his career.
“Things really hadn’t gone that well so I was all ears on whatever advice I could get and whatever kind of help.” Manship said. “For my first bullpen before the 2015 season he said ‘Hey, let’s start throwing on that third base side and we will go from there.’ I agreed because I really had nothing to lose at that point. We did that and it really made a difference.”
The gamble the Tribe took on the scuffling reliever paid off. The minor league contract Manship inked back in December included an invitation to spring training. Jeff did not disappoint, making a strong impression with the Tribe’s coaching staff. However, as April loomed, Jeff could not escape the shadow of his resume.
“Going into spring training that year, I had one of the best spring trainings I had ever had.” Manship said. “I feel like it carried over the whole season, but I didn’t make the team out of spring training. I was a little upset, but I understood completely that there were some other guys with better track records and they deserved it.”
After starting the 2015 season with the Columbus Clippers, the Indians’ AAA affiliate, Manship got the call to the Cleveland in June. In 40 innings of work, he posted an almost pristine 0.92 ERA. The righty had earned his place on a young, promising Indians roster.
“I finally went into spring training knowing I had a job.” Manship explained. “Every other year, I was fighting for a job. On day one, I came in and they told me to make sure I was ready to go for the beginning of the season and not to worry about my stats. They were also trying to tell me not to try to match the year that I had in 2015. It was a season that would be very hard to replicate. They wanted to make sure I didn’t get down on myself for giving up a couple of runs.”
Over the first half of the season Manship was dominant, playing a key role as the Indians used a 14-game winning streak to take control of the Central. In late July, a bout with wrist tendonitis resulted in a few rough outings and a trip to the disabled list. He returned in early August to help the Tribe cement their lead and capture their first division title in nine years.
Now, Manship is looking to do his part for a ballclub that thrives on its pitching. With the regular season behind him, he is focused on preparing for the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox.
“The biggest thing is staying healthy and making sure I’m ready to go.” Manship said. “We’ve had a couple injuries with some of our starters so right now it seems like we have a bullpen day about every day. I understand why they are doing that, they have to protect those starters and make sure they are in line. Right now I’m trying to stay focused and go into the (postseason) with confidence.”
With game 1 of the ALDS here, the realization of the post season is beginning to set in for Manship, along with all the accompanying emotions.
“It is starting to look more real, watching the Blue Jays and Orioles and seeing the emotions going through everybody and the excitement of the crowd. It really hadn’t sunk in until last night. Walking around town today, I saw so many people buying Indians gear and getting ready for everything. It’s been a lot of fun, especially seeing the support that Cleveland has had for us. I’m really excited to see what they bring on Thursday.”
Manship also says the experience of the Cavaliers’ NBA Championship in June has served as a motivation for him and the rest of the Indians’ squad.
“It sent chills down my spine watching the parade they had for the Cavs, knowing that over a million people came downtown to watch it,” Manship said. “It was definitely hectic for us trying to get to the field that day but it was a lot of fun seeing how much support the city had, especially knowing how for so long they had been let down. Getting to see them get to celebrate something as big as that was really awesome. We were doing really well at the time too so it did motivate us even more, we said we wanted that for the city, for ourselves, for the organization. It got us all very excited.”
Regardless of how the Indians’ season ends, Manship is more than pleased with how he has responded to the opportunity the Indians offered him.
“I’m happy with how things have gone,” Manship said. “I’m definitely grateful that the Indians decided to sign me and stuck by me and let me do my thing. Now, I’m just hoping that we can go as far as possible in the playoffs and I can be a contributor. And next year, since I’ll have to be re-signed or get arbitration again, I hope they decide to take me on again and have another full season.”
Manship credits the Notre Dame program in helping him succeed at the highest level of competition.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how many good players come out of Notre Dame,” Manship said. “Look at (Diamondbacks All-Star outfielder) A.J. Pollock and what he has done in his career so far and (Oakland reliever) John Axford, there’s a lot of really big names, (Brewers manager) Craig Counsell and (former Phillies and Astros All-Star closer) Brad Lidge. There are a lot more than you think.”
Over the course of his career, Manship has faced numerous obstacles. He has conquered reconstructive elbow surgery and revitalized a career that almost ended. Standing in his way now are the Boston Red Sox. The journey that began in South Bend looks to continue with Jeff Manship and the Indians making a playoff run deep into October.
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Jake Maier is a senior student worker for Fighting Irish Media. The Cleveland, Ohio native is a neuroscience and behavior major in the College of Science.