SAN FRANCISCO — Sean Manaea says he’s ready for the rush of a regular-season game.
He’s ready to stare in at home plate and see the American League’s best hitters staring back at him.
However, the mission goes beyond those one-on-one battles for the A’s big lefty.
Entering his first full major league season, Manaea must lean on his minimal experience and pitch like a grizzled veteran. For as long as Sonny Gray is sidelined by a strained lat muscle, Manaea slots in as Oakland’s No. 2 starter behind Kendall Graveman.
He certainly pitched Thursday night like he’s up to the challenge. Not a single Giant reached base in Manaea’s four innings at AT&T Park to open the Bay Bridge Series. That 12-up, 12-down performance was the A’s highlight in a 3-0 loss before a crowd of 39,380.
The A’s have a wealth of quality young starting pitching, but it isn’t exactly battle-hardened. That depth will be tested with Gray sidelined, however long that may be. Consider, the A’s Nos. 3-5 starters — Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs and Raul Alcantara — have started just 16 major league games.
It’s up to Manaea to fill in behind Graveman. Thing is, the 25-year-old Manaea has just 24 big league starts himself. But manager Bob Melvin sees a maturity in Manaea. He went 7-9 with a 3.86 ERA last season, taking his lumps early on but eventually learning to maintain his composure and focus during games, particularly on the road.
After posting a 5.24 ERA and .278 opponents’ batting average before the All-Star break, Manaea improved to a 2.67 ERA and .220 opponents’ average after the break.
Coming into spring training, Manaea had a clear idea of what needed improvement.
“Just being more consistent with my off-speed pitches, especially my slider,” he said. “Last year, it was just very inconsistent. I didn’t know what I was doing with it, This year, especially toward the end of spring training, I feel like I got the grip down, got it in my hand just where I wanted to throw it.”
Added Melvin: “For a youngster who hasn’t been in the big leagues that long, to have an understanding of what he needs to work on (is important), and that’s going to be a third pitch.”
Manaea’s teammates see the difference in him, and they draw confidence from it.
“We knew who we were getting when we traded for him,” A’s reliever Ryan Dull said. “But just to see him develop his changeup, it’s even better than it was. His slider has gotten a lot better. You just can tell he’s more comfortable each outing.”
After Manaea toiled away in the spring training heat of Arizona, the crisp air at AT&T Park brought to mind what the elements will be like for early-season night games at the Coliseum. He takes the ball Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Angels in Oakland’s second game of 2017.
Manaea says he’s eager for the start of the regular season.
“Just the atmosphere. Every park has its different aura,” he said. “I’m just really excited to get out there and compete and find those challenges, especially with guys like Mike Trout. Those are fun challenges to go through.”
Melvin is “optimistic” about left fielder Khris Davis and third baseman Trevor Plouffe returning to the lineup Friday. Davis has missed a week’s worth of exhibitions with right quad soreness, while Plouffe hasn’t played since Saturday with a groin strain.
“They’re doing fine, doing better again today,” Melvin said. “We kept them out again today, but I’m optimistic they’ll both be in there tomorrow, and if that’s the case, we feel good about them going into the season.”
The A’s play the Giants on Friday night and Saturday in preparation for Monday’s opener. Though Melvin expressed optimism about both players, he also said final roster decisions hinge partly on their status.
“A lot of it (depends on) how Trevor and Khris are, and if they’re healthy we have a pretty good idea of what (the roster) is going to look like.”