The personalities come and go through the clubhouse, and Steve Luebber has a knack for noticing how each player carries himself throughout season. The Wilmington Blue Rocks' pitching coach can spot when a pitcher is doing well or when he may be focusing too much on a negative aspect from a previous start.
It was something he noticed in Sean Manaea during the first half of the 2014 season that made Luebber wonder why the left-handed pitcher was not living up to his expectations. Luebber describes Manaea as "a happy-go-lucky guy," so when Manaea was down on himself, there was something Luebber needed to do to get him back on track.
Why was Manaea struggling? That came to the forefront when Manaea revealed that he was spending too much time focusing on what went wrong in an outing. The negatives outweighed the positives, so Luebber and others worked with him on building on the positives.
That midseason lesson has been something Manaea has held on to as he battles back from a pair of injuries that have hampered him this season. The Royals' No. 2 prospect is focusing on the positives, mainly an improving changeup, during his second stint with the Class A Advanced Blue Rocks.
"I've got a lot of coaches talking to me about the right way to go. It's definitely helped me a lot," Manaea said. "I wasn't, I guess, mature enough to let those things go. I just thank them a lot because I know it's pretty hard work to get a young guy to do something like that."
Manaea was Kansas City's supplemental first-round selection in the 2013 Draft out of Indiana State, but needed hip surgery for a torn labrum in his right hip. He started the 2014 campaign with Wilmington, and there were the obvious signs that he was thinking too much on the mound -- it wasn't necessarily how his surgically repaired hip was holding up, but more along the lines of why he wasn't pitching to his potential. In his 12 first-half starts, he was 2-5 with a 4.44 ERA and batters hit .288 against him in 48 1/3 innings.
That's when Luebber sat down with Manaea and worked out the kinks.
His second-half stats were exceptional -- a 5-3 record, 1.96 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings. More importantly, batters hit a meager .180 against him and he allowed only one home run.
"Early in the year, he tended to want to open up, spin off, drop his arm slot and miss arm side a lot," Luebber said. "Later on, his posture got better, he threw the ball down, he had the good slider and good changeup and the good velocity, and just dominated."
The second half Manaea was what the Royals wanted to carry over to this season, but a strained abdominal muscle in Spring Training relegated him to extended spring training. During his rehab, he had a groin issue that kept him out until a June 24 appearance with the AZL Royals.
He enjoyed a quality start there before returning to Wilmington, where he's 1-0 with an 0.82 ERA. His third start is scheduled for Wednesday against Frederick.
"I was glad to see he came here really close to what he did at the end of last year," Luebber said. "That's the first thing I told him. I said, 'You're here, so let's see the late-season Sean Manaea and have a few outings and get him out of here and get him to Double-A like he can.' He knows that's what we're looking for."
Sure Manaea can get frustrated at times, but he's been focusing on what he does well in his starts. He and Luebber agreed that his most recent start on July 4 against Potomac was a step in the right direction. Manaea allowed one unearned run on four hits in six innings.
It was also the start in which Manaea began using a four-seam changeup, which is a transition from the two-seam version he used last season.
"When I was in big league camp, I got to talk to Ryan Madson about his changeup. It was really cool seeing him, because I know his changeup is amazing," Manaea said. "He just showed me how he held it and just what he thought about when he was throwing it. That's just something that I really wanted to work on. I threw a two-seam changeup last year and I felt that the higher I go up, it would be more noticeable. I pretty much forced myself from extended to mini-camp to now to just throw a four-seam changeup."
Manaea knows there will be mixed results from time to time in his outing, especially as he works in his new changeup to go with his fastball and slider. It is all part of the process he's undergone for the last year to make sure his mind-set is right when he takes the mound.
"I know stuff like that's going to happen. I know it's going to be frustrating and all that stuff," Manaea said. "Last year, I would just worry about all the bad things. I couldn't get it out of my head. It's sort of like I'm putting too much pressure on myself. I know that's not the case and I shouldn't be doing that. I just couldn't grasp that concept. The second half of last year was a little rough to start out, but I just kept getting better and better, and started taking away more positive things throughout my starts. That's something that I've been working on in the offseason -- I think about the good things that I've done, just think about throwing strikes and all that stuff."
Hot Papi: Lynchburg outfielder Mike Papi never got off to quick starts at the plate during his three seasons at the University of Virginia, so it wasn't necessarily a surprise to him that his batting average suffered at the beginning of the season as he adjusted to Carolina League pitching. But just like he did at Virginia, he's found his stride -- Papi's current 15-game hitting streak is the longest in the league this season and his average has climbed 37 points (.210 to .247) in that span. He's third in the league in on-base percentage (.381).
Finding some gold: Tad Gold wasn't known as a power hitter or run producer after Baltimore selected the outfielder in the 35th round of the 2014 Draft. He played 24 games with Class A Short Season Aberdeen of the New York-Penn League, did not hit a home run and drove in only one run. So you can imagine his surprise when in his second contest with the Frederick Keys, he did something he hadn't done before -- Gold hit a three-run homer during Sunday's game against Salem.
Back in black: Myrtle Beach right-hander Paul Blackburn returned to the Pelicans rotation Monday night and pitched three shutout innings against Carolina. Blackburn, the Cubs' No. 24 prospect and the organization's first-round pick in the 2012 Draft, was placed on the disabled list on June 15 and made his first start since June 11. He scattered two hits and struck out two while facing one batter over the minimum in his 33-pitch outing.
Damien Sordelett is a contributor to MiLB.com.