Try as he will to explain the thrill of being a key rookie reliever in a pennant race, words just don’t measure up to the gleam in his eyes.
“Oh, it’s cool,” Maness said recently, standing in front of his locker. “But when it comes game time, it’s strictly business. You’re not thinking about any of that.”
Such an ability to focus on the job at hand undoubtedly has helped Maness emerge as one of the Cardinals’ most pleasant surprises this season. Besides the rise of Matt Carpenter into an All-Star leadoff hitter, no Cardinals player has provided a more unexpected lift than the 24-year-old North Carolinian. Fellow rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist is close, but by his arrival Maness had been in St. Louis for more than a month.
Maness, 24, and Carlos Martinez were the first rookies called on to bolster a pitching staff sagging under the struggles of Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski. That was late April. While most of the rookie pitchers spent the summer shuttling between the minors and majors, Maness has remained with the Cardinals since he arrived.
He allowed a run in only one of his first 10 outings and gained a reputation for throwing strikes, working quickly and inducing double-play grounders. He ranks first among NL relievers in inducing both ground balls (87.6 percent) and double plays (14) and is fourth in allowing inherited runners to score (7 of 45, 15.6 percent). He also is averaging less than two walks per nine innings and leads Cardinals relievers with five wins.
He has steadily earned more and more trust from manager Mike Matheny to the point that Maness was summoned for eighth-inning duty recently when Trevor Rosenthal was unavailable.
Strictly a starter in his previous two seasons, Maness was named the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year after going 11-3 and helping Springfield win the 2012 Southern League championship. He fared fine in four spring training appearances but, with veterans such as Boggs and Rzepczynski guaranteed roster spots, Maness had little chance of starting the season in the majors.
But after making four starts for Memphis, he was called up to work out of the bullpen, a role with which he had little experience.
“From a starter’s perspective, you see relievers and you take a lot for granted,” Maness said. “I have a lot more respect now for what relievers do.”
For one reason, he has learned how quickly a good roll can end. Maness gave up only one run in the 16 innings he worked in August, and it proved to be meaningless in an 8-6 win. He entered September with a 2.09 ERA in 51 1/3 innings.
But called on in the seventh inning of a scoreless game Tuesday night, Maness was tagged with the loss in a 1-0 setback to the Reds after he gave up a leadoff single, stolen base and double. This was a rare night when his tendency to allow hits (59 in 53 2/3 innings) cost him and his team. He acknowledged the shortcoming in his game last week.
“It hasn’t been easy grinding it out. I give up a lot of hits,” he said. “I’m still trying to learn how to get it done.”
The stolen base hurt him against Cincinnati as much as the hits. With minor league stolen base king Billy Hamilton pinch-running after Ryan Ludwick’s leadoff single, Maness threw over to first three times.
Undeterred, Hamilton still took off on the first pitch and beat a wide throw to second by Yadier Molina. After Todd Frazier was unable to get down a sacrifice, he stroked a two-strike double to left that easily scored Hamilton. After the game, Hamilton told reporters that he could sense nervousness in Maness’ repeated throws to first.
The loss continued another poor trip by the Cardinals, now 8-14 on the road since the All-Star break. That it took till September for Maness to suffer just his second loss, in 55 outings, should help him handle the disappointment. A little.
As he said last week, the pressure to perform has lessened, but it’s still lurking.
“I feel a little bit more stress off my back, but it’s still intense,” Maness says. “I wouldn’t say that comfort level is fully there. I’m still just learning.”
He isn’t close to taking his place in the majors for granted, either. Though Maness would like another opportunity to start someday, for now he’s taking the right approach.
Asked what he would like to be doing in two years, he says, “Still playing. That’s about it.”
You can see that he means it by the gleam in his eyes.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.