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CHICAGO — It's three hours before game time Saturday, and I'm in the Oakland A's locker room, searching for the "ace" of their pitching staff.

Just look for the glow over locker 55, says public relations director Fernando Alcala'.

Ah, there he is, showing teammate Frankie Montas how to grip certain pitches.

Sean Manaea, welcome home.

The 2010 Andrean grad and former Indiana State standout beat the White Sox in Game 1 of Friday's doubleheader, 11-2, allowing one run in seven innings, striking out seven and walking none.

Of his 106 pitches, 77 were for strikes.

Attendance was unavailable for that game, but there were gaping holes at Guaranteed Rate Field large enough to land jets — except for Manaea's fan club.

It was quite raucous.

"Yeah, I saw 'em. I heard 'em. They were here from Wanatah, Union Mills, Andrean ... everywhere," he said.

Friday's decision gave the smooth-throwing, 6-foot-5, 230-pounder a 7-6 record and 3.40 ERA. Mentally, though, there are still hurdles to clear.

"That's the thing about the Big Leagues — dealing with that pressure. There's a lot," Manaea said. "Being up here, you have to learn how to deal with those in-game stressors and everything that comes with it. They're magnified because it's the Big Leagues and everybody's watching. Crowds are getting bigger.

"For me, it's been a work in progress from college until now."

The road to MLB was not one of fireworks, water canons and giant billboards proclaiming his arrival.

Manaea has paid his dues, with interest.

He was not drafted in high school, where he won a state championship, and while at Indiana State, he played summer ball with the Dubois County Bombers in Huntington, Indiana, the Prospect League and the Cape Cod Baseball League.

The Kansas City Royals drafted him 34th in the 2013 MLB Draft, but surgery on a torn acetabular labrum forced him to miss the season.

Healthy for spring training in 2014, Manaea was sent to the Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Rocks of the Class A-Advanced Carolina League, then promoted to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals of the Class AA Texas League.

On July 28 of 2015, he was traded to Oakland for Ben Zobrist and sent to the Midland Rockhounds of the Texas League, followed by the Nashville Sounds of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.

Life was Hotel.com, a suitcase and fast food.

Manaea finally made his MLB debut in 2016 with a fastball clocked at 97 miles per hour. As a senior at Andrean, he had reached 82 to 85 mph.

"I definitely struggled in the minor leagues and my first two years up here. And that's shaped how I've been able to play the game," Manaea said.

"It all starts with the pitcher."

Surprisingly, Fernando Alcala told me Manaea is very humble and his no-hitter against Boston last April hasn't changed him one bit. He doesn't do commercials back in Oakland and would rather talk about teammates and their progress.

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Could it be because he grew up in Wanatah, located near LaPorte, with a population of less than 1,000 people?

Or that he attended South Central Jr-Sr High School his first three years, where projected enrollment for 2018-19 is 464?

"I've just never been one to talk about myself," he said. "It's just not who I am or how I was raised by my parents. I don't know if growing up in small towns directly affected that.

"But they don't talk about themselves (either)."

His April 21 no-hitter against the offensive-minded Red Sox makes him the first A's pitcher to throw one since Dallas Braden's perfect game in 2010.

You'd think Manaea would have lucrative offers pouring in from Oakland car dealerships, furniture outlets, pizza joints or sporting goods chains to hawk their products on TV and radio.

"Nah, just a couple of interviews and that's about it," Manaea said, smiling. "I would rather just talk abut baseball and get better."

He's still in touch with legendary Andrean coach Dave Pishkur, whom he said had a huge impact on his personal life and approach to baseball.

"They're doing the right things and I'm just super thankful for being able to go there," Manaea said. "He really loves his players, really loves keeping in touch and seeing them do well."

While the A's struggle to stay above .500, Manaea has found his groove this month, going 3-1 with 19 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings and a 2.81 ERA.

The difference?

"I'm just believing in myself and not putting too much pressure on myself," Manaea said. "That can't happen. You can't have that mindset.

"I have to trust my stuff."

That includes a four-seam fastball, deceptive changeup and sneaky slider. It's enabled him to lead the staff in wins (7), innings pitched (100 2/3) and strikeouts (75).

He's allowed just 19 walks.

Three former Region players -- Gary's Lloyd McClendon, Ron Kittle and Crown Point grad Dan Plesac -- know talent and see All-Star potential in the young lefty.

"His stuff can be electric at times and he obviously has a very bright future," said Tigers' hitting coach McClendon. "Like any pitcher at this level, health is important. Oakland has a keeper."

Kittle is a White Sox ambassador and 1983 American League Rookie Of The Year.

"He's big and strong and when I see him throw ... got great potential for a good future," Kittle said.

And this from long-time relief pitcher and MLB Network analyst Plesac: "Reminds me of Sid Fernandez. Fastball has life through the strike zone. Unique delivery. Hides the ball very well and has great composure on the mound.

"Front-line pitcher right now who will only get better. Lots to like."

If that glow on locker 55 burns any brighter, we may need sun screen one day to interview this kid.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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