Taking the Mound: Maness Follows in Baldwin's Footsteps
Before the start of the second day of the clinic for pitchers and catchers held at Pinecrest High School last Sunday, James Baldwin was reminiscing about his first big-league spring training camp.
Baldwin, a Pinecrest graduate and Patriot Hall of Famer, was the winning pitcher for the American League in the 2000 All-Star game as a member of the Chicago White Sox, and ended up pitching in the big leagues for 11 years.
Baldwin remembers his first big league camp almost 20 years ago like it was yesterday. He got the word he was going after playing winter baseball in Venezuela.
“When I got back they told me I was going to spring training to compete for a job,” he said. “We were in Sarasota, Fla. It was nerve-racking because you see all these guys on television and now you are absolutely competing and trying to be there with them.”
The first major league batter he faced didn’t do much to quiet the nerves.
“The first one was the biggest guy I’d seen in my whole, entire life, Rob Deer,” Baldwin said, recalling the power hitting outfielder. “He was so big up top, half his shirt wouldn’t buckle up.
“I throw up a first pitch fastball and he swings and misses. I remember throwing the next one, and I’ve never seen a ball hit so high up in the infield. I’m looking up, looking up, and I lost the ball. But Robin Ventura (third baseman) saw it and says, ‘I got it.’ I was glad he did because I never saw it.”
Following his retirement from major league baseball, Baldwin came home and became the pitching coach for Pinecrest coach Jeff Hewitt at a time when Seth Maness was the ace of the staff.
Now Maness is getting ready to experience the same thing Baldwin did those 20 years ago.
Ready to Report
Maness, going into his third year of professional baseball, is coming off a 14-4 season that earned him the honor of the St. Louis Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the year. Also a college star at East Carolina, the right-hander is due to report to the Cards’ major league training base in Jupiter, Fla., for the first time on Tuesday as a non-roster invitee.
Maness’ father, Michael, was Baldwin’s baseball coach at Pinecrest. Seth Maness was an 11th-round pick of the Cardinals in the 2011 draft. He was 21-2 as a pitcher at Pinecrest and 38-11 in his career at East Carolina, where he earned All-America and All-Conference USA honors.
Hewitt, the director of the clinic, first remembers Seth selling doughnuts at his house as a 10-year-old to earn money for his youth team to make a trip to Florida.
“From pitching one of the most unbelievable games I’ve seen pitched against Greenville Rose to seeing him pitch a shutout against Rice, and now standing on the field where he played baseball with a Cardinals uniform on, is really special,” he said. “That’s the reason we do what we do. He’s a high character person. He’s very humble.”
The control numbers put up by Maness at each succeeding level of baseball are almost off the charts. Starting out the 2012 season, playing for the Cardinals’ Class A Palm Beach team, he did not walk a batter until his 42nd inning. He spent most of the season pitching for Springfield (Mo.) of the AA Texas League. In 169.2 innings at both stops he walked a total of 10 batters or one every 16.9 innings. The closest any major league starting pitcher came to that ratio in 2012 was Cliff Lee of the Phillies at one free pass for every 7.5 innings (28 walks in 207 innings).
Baldwin says that he and another clinic instructor, Paul Shuey, who spent most of his big league career with the Cleveland Indians, encouraged Maness to have fun with it in Jupiter.
“I really do think Seth is going to make it because he’s such a competitor,” Baldwin says. “What he’s done in the Cardinals organization so far is phenomenal.
“I’ll tell you who he reminds me of with his pitching style — Greg Maddux. He’s the type of guy who is going to paint, paint and paint. You’re in the dugout thinking, ‘I can hit this guy,’ and all of a sudden you’re 0-for-4 wondering what just happened.
“He’s not going to strike out a lot of guys, but that’s what you want, a guy who is going to let them get themselves out.”
Maness describes Baldwin as a pitching coach who instilled confidence that you can get the job done and to believe in yourself.
“He’s a guy from the area that’s been there and done it,” Maness says. “I’m happy to call him a friend.”
Now the 24-year-old is probably no more than a couple of weeks away from facing a major league batter for the first time himself in an intra-squad game. After pitching by far the most innings in one season in his career, he is feeling strong after an off-season of traveling between Pinehurst and Greenville to work out at East Carolina.
A logical career progression would be a promotion to AAA either after spring training or sometime during the 2013 season.
“I haven’t crossed that bridge yet so I’m going with open expectations,” he says. “Actually playing against and with them (big leaguers) is going to be exciting, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Nice and Easy
One of the things Maness imparts to people like Tristan Helms, a junior on the Pinecrest pitching staff with college aspirations, is how the strike zone has shrunk from high school to college to the pros.
Another adjustment has been to change from throwing a four-seam fastball most of the time to a two-seam to get more movement.
“You’ve got to be finer with your pitches — just nibble a little bit more — commit to each pitch more,” Maness says.
When people like Baldwin, Shuey and Maness talk pitching, youngsters like 13-year-old Alex Contreras, a student at West Pine Middle School and a member of the Carolina Defenders travel team, listen.
“Seth Maness was out in center field with us talking about how we need to hit our spots and how our ball is going to break,” Contreras said. “That helped a lot. We pay money for this, but I can tell you that it’s worth it and we really appreciate it.”
Helms describes Maness as kind of an idol and an inspiration to him as a middle schooler when he watched him pitch for Pinecrest at John W. Williams Stadium.
The left-hander, who led the Patriot pitching staff with a record of 6-2 last season, was soaking in all of the “Maness System” he could.
“He stressed staying ahead of the hitters and eye focus — picking out a spot and then going for that spot,” Helms said.
Maness is currently ranked from No. 12 to No. 20 on various website rankings of Cardinal minor league prospects.
“Maness is the type of pitcher that can’t be evaluated primarily with radar guns,” according to MLB.com in an excerpt from a recent analysis. “His fastball is average, at best, thrown in the 90-91 mph range. Maness does throw it with a lot of sink, leading to many ground-ball outs. Maness throws strikes and has plus command down in the strike zone. He always works ahead, and in 2012, he only had one game where he walked more than one batter.”
Maness left the power pitching tips at the clinic to the two former major leaguers. By Sunday, the young pitching hopefuls were putting some good looking deliveries of the baseball on display under the watchful eyes of the pros.
“I’m not the hard thrower,” Maness said. “That’s James’ and Shuey’s area so I’m helping them stay around the zone and tightening their mechanics, getting them to work fast and hopefully getting the defense to make some plays.”
When Maness pitches for the first time in spring training, there is bound to be some extra adrenalin flowing. But his methods of going about getting batters out is not likely to have changed much from the way sports writer Kary Booher of the Springfield News-Leader described it after a tidy scoreless seven-inning stint against San Antonio last June.
“Watching Seth Maness pitch these days is like sipping iced tea on a front porch swing,” he wrote of the mound artistry he observed. “It’s nice and easy, with no cares in the world.”
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