Hometown Report

Sheldon’s Matt Manning has glove affair with pitching

Matt Manning of Sheldon High School, shown in January 2015, could be a first-round pick as a pitcher in baseball’s draft next month.
Matt Manning of Sheldon High School, shown in January 2015, could be a first-round pick as a pitcher in baseball’s draft next month. Sacramento Bee file

Matt Manning packs one for his fingertips wherever he goes.

The Sheldon High School senior right-hander speaks fondly of these items, all similar in shape and meaning. He deems each as reliable and as loyal as a lap dog. They’re baseball gloves, four of them, and Manning treasures each.

On Monday afternoon, Manning strolled out to practice in dress slacks, black shoes, button-down shirt and tie – and a glove on his left hand – before changing in the dugout. He calls this glove “Jack.” The garb was for a senior project Manning presented after practice to faculty and community members, on the benefits of coaching and mentoring youth.

The gloves, naturally, are especially valuable in games. If Manning isn’t blowing a pitch past someone at 96 mph, he’s gloving a dribbler or snagging a line drive.

And yes, Manning will sleep with a glove, the leather perched on the neighboring pillow. When he drives to school in his father’s 2008 Suburban, a glove rests on the passenger seat. Quirky? Absolutely, and Manning doesn’t deny any of it.

“Gotta have my glove,” Manning said with a laugh, studying Jack. “I take a ball with me, too, sometimes to government class. I’m always trying to figure out my grip.”

Manning named one of his gloves “Gigi,” a tribute to his girlfriend, Gigi Garcia, the standout basketball player for McClatchy. Smart man, this Manning.

“Oh, I had to name one after her,” he said, grinning.

Baseball scouts flocking to Sheldon games offer tags for Manning, too. Such as “potential” or “star” or “gas.” Gas is what Manning throws, sizzling fastball heat. He’s touched 98 mph this season. And at 6-foot-6 and 198 pounds, Manning’s long frame and delivery equate to potential stardom. He is projected to go in the first round of next month’s Major League Baseball draft.

“You can hear the ball zip off his fingertips, and you’re thinking, OK, that had to be 100 mph!” Sheldon pitcher and teammate Zach Jedlowski said. “We’re amazed. I admire his presence out there.”

Manning has gone from versatile Bee All-Metro basketball star to the region’s hottest baseball prospect. And there’s this scary part: He’s still figuring this game out.

“Matt’s amazing, and he’ll only get better because he’s still learning how to pitch,” said Sheldon third-year coach Matt McGrew, who has his program in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs for the first time since 2010. “All the scouts, it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Scouts in the bullpen when he’s warming up, inspecting every little piece of him. You’d think it’d be hard, but he handles it so well. He’s so smooth, so easygoing. And who knows if this is his best sport.

“The first thing scouts want to know is if he’s just a basketball player and he’s faking it out here on the mound. No, he’s a pitcher, and he loves it, and he’s dominant.”

Manning remains a gym rat. He’s loyal to that love, too. He followed in the footsteps of older brother Ryan, now playing hoops at Air Force. The brothers got their basketball blood from their father, Rich Manning Sr., a Center High School graduate who played in the NBA.

Manning also has his dad’s poise. The sea of radar guns that lift in unison for every Manning windup hasn’t rattled the kid. Neither has the prospect of a signing bonus for millions of dollars.

Manning also could opt to play both baseball and basketball at Loyola Marymount and study communications. In short, this is some senior season.

“It’s been great, and I’ve had a lot of fun,” Manning said. “It’s all a dream, but I don’t know what I’ll do, sign or go to college. I know it’s a win-win either way.”

Manning insists he isn’t a one-man team. The Huskies worked out throughout the summer, fall and winter to become a playoff team. Manning will start Thursday’s playoff opener at Sacramento City College, and McGrew hopes his team doesn’t compete in awe. That’s the downside of having a prospect on your roster. It’s easy to get lost in the moment of the kid firing fastballs.

For all of Manning’s power, he hasn’t been blessed with much luck. He is 2-0 in seven starts with five no-decisions. He has struck out 70 in 35 1/3 innings, allowing 13 runs with a 1.58 ERA. Manning has been pretty good at the plate, too, batting .492 with 22 RBIs and 20 runs. And he’s a good student, pulling a 3.8 grade-point average.

Typical Manning, he’ll bring up teammates before he mentions his own stats. Jedlowski is 9-2, and McGrew calls him “The Vulture” because of the kid’s desire to clean up on a no-decision by Manning or to excel as a starter. Burle Dixon is batting .415 with 20 RBIs for the Huskies.

“In games, our guys sometimes sit back and watch Matt Manning, the show, and I get on them that we’ve got to get on in it, grind,” McGrew said. “A lot of times, when Matt leaves the game, we relax and start hitting and scoring runs.”

On Monday, Manning used a fungo bat to effortlessly swat a number of balls deep into the outfield for fielders to glove. Some sailed well over the fence.

“Freak athlete who’s tapping the ball, and they just go,” Sheldon assistant coach Dave Wilkins said. “I played receiver at Florida, and when Matt threw me a football once, it amazed me. Told him he throws harder than Rex Grossman when I was with him at Florida. How cool is that?

“And the best thing about Matt? He’s so coachable. He’s enjoying all of this, and we’re enjoying him.”