The makeshift hitting facility in the backyard shared by Washington State’s Kyle Manzardo, Zane Mills, Jack Smith, Brandon White and Connor Barison would’ve been fully operational by now, but when the three players still living in Pullman – Manzardo, Mills and Smith stuck around when their season was shuttered – began assembling their Bownet frame, they realized they were short on parts.
“I haven’t hit a ball in probably a week,” said Manzardo, a Coeur d’Alene native and Lake City graduate, during a recent phone interview.
If he had his choice, WSU’s sophomore infielder would be spraying baseballs into the deep alleys of the outfield at Bailey-Brayton Field – something he was doing at a record pace before the season stopped. But option No. 1 is off the table and now so is option No. 2, until Manzardo can reassemble the Bownet.
So he’s limited to “dry swings.” Consider it the backup plan for the backup plan.
Manzardo rests the bat on his back shoulder, lifts his front foot, squares up an imaginary baseball and swings the aluminum stick. Monitoring the speed and the path of the bat, he goes through the exercise over and over again – swinging against air until he feels comfortable with the quality, and to a lesser extent the quantity, of the virtual at-bats he’s taken.
“It’s just a feel thing for me,” he said.
Manzardo’s attitude toward the monotonous work it takes to perfect a swing is partially why he had more base hits (27) than any other baseball player in the Pac-12 when the season stopped more than a month ago. That included at least one hit in each of the Cougars’ 16 games – the seventh-longest streak in school history – and multiple hits in nine of those.
Manzardo also posted the second-best batting average in the conference at .435, and in his final four games managed to muscle three home runs over the crimson wall at Bailey-Brayton Field, which put him in a tie for fifth. In the final five games, Manzardo shelled out 12 hits, including a four-hit, four-RBI game against Niagara – the team that received the brunt of the first baseman’s late-season tear during the first week of March.
COVID-19 has succeeded where most pitchers couldn’t this season, keeping Manzardo hitless since WSU closed the season on March 10 against Gonzaga – the same day Manzardo was named Pac-12 Player of the Week.
“Obviously getting a year back with eligibility is pretty exciting for what he can do, and knowing him now it’s not a big deal to tell everybody he’s a big hitter,” first-year WSU coach Brian Green said. “Obviously he had a great year, preseason, but his work habits are going to carry him.”
Green and his predecessor, Marty Lees, who coached four seasons at WSU, may have varied in their philosophies of how to build a program in Pullman, but they’ve shared similar opinions about Manzardo’s ability to hit a baseball.
The 2018 5A Inland Empire League MVP hadn’t taken an official at-bat for the Cougars when Lees, during a preseason news conference, stated “(Manzardo) will be one of the best hitters to ever come through Washington State.”
While that didn’t faze Manzardo, who went on to start 45 games as a freshman and notch a team-leading 31 RBI while hitting .272, it caused others to grow uneasy – including the first person to put a bat in his hands.
“I was a little nervous, because it’s like the John Madden video game,” said Paul Manzardo, Kyle’s father and the varsity baseball coach at Lake City. “Whoever gets put on that cover, you’re wondering whether or not they’re going to get jinxed. The only thing I can say to that is he just needs to keep getting better.
“There’s been some unbelievable players at WSU, and there are going to continue to be really good players there. There’s someone on that outlook looking in that’s going to try to knock you off. So you’re going to always have to continue to work to get better.”
The combination of Green, an offensive wizard whose 2019 New Mexico State team led the country in almost every major hitting category, and Manzardo, who’s already had hitting streaks of 10 and 16 games in his short WSU career, is an enticing one – just not for opposing pitchers.
Niagara learned it the hard way, conceding 10 hits to Manzardo and 47 runs to WSU in a four-game series on the Palouse last month. The Cougars were third (of 11 teams) in the Pac-12 with 145 hits when the season stopped – a category they finished ninth in the year prior.
“Honestly what he did for me mostly, I’d say, is he helped me understand I was good enough, and how good I could be depends on how hard I work,” Manzardo said of Green’s offensive influence. “I wouldn’t really say I ever lacked confidence, but he kind of just helped me understand I was good enough.”
Manzardo is an excellent contact hitter who has surprising strength for his size – he’s just 6-foot-1, 195 pounds – and a compact swing that allows him to conserve energy and generate more power than players who are bigger and taller. Those things have helped “Manzo” turn deep doubles and triples into no-doubt homers, but they aren’t necessarily his best traits.
“Probably the biggest thing that stands out is how smart he is as a hitter,” said Spokane Falls Community College coach Ryne Webb, who also coaches the Spokane Expos, a traveling summer team Manzardo played on in high school. “Even from a young age, he understood how to work counts and just been a pretty mature hitter. … He used to hit everything to the left side, and then as he kind of got older he started showing more and more power, but he’s always been a great competitor and really smart hitter.”
It probably helps that Manzardo has never been too far from a batting cage or people willing to help him tune up his swing. Family outings were often held at Lake City’s hitting facility – an indoor cage the Manzardos have taken advantage of for years – and Paul, the former North Idaho College baseball coach, has mentored his son since he was first introduced to the sport.
“I don’t think he ever stopped coaching me,” Kyle said.
While dad has always been the sounding board, younger brother Marcus, a junior shortstop/second baseman at Lake City, has been a lifelong practice partner.
“The summer and seasons, they played almost every day or practiced,” Paul said. “They’re always doing something.”
Manzardo’s Lake City teams usually made deep postseason runs – the Timberwolves won the 5A state title in 2016 – which meant he followed a 30-game high school season with 50 or 60 games in an Expos uniform. Naturally, the prelude to all that was a 25- or 30-game season with Lake City’s varsity basketball team.
If that nine-month slog ever wore Manzardo down by the time the Expos’ season ended in July, Webb never noticed.
“Summer ball, the big thing you kind of notice is the guys who lift all summer and the guys who don’t,” Webb said. “He’s definitely one of those guys who stuck with it throughout. He would get back from a tournament late on a Sunday night and he’d be in the weight room Monday morning getting back at it.”
Manzardo, who had a staggering batting average of .594 in high school, hit above .500 for the Expos and grabbed WSU’s attention during a summer-league game at Central Valley High against the Spokane Dodgers – a team that Brandon Lees, the son of the Cougars’ former coach, played for.
According to his own recollection of the game, Manzardo had a single, two doubles and a home run, describing it as “the game that I think kind of put me on (Lees’) radar.”
At least six of Manzardo’s Expo teammates are playing Division I baseball, so it can be somewhat of a burden for Webb to keep track of each one, but he does his best to follow the Cougars through Pac-12 Network television streams or live stat broadcasts.
“My head’s kind of spinning trying to follow all these guys,” Webb said, “but Kyle’s definitely making an impact. It was fun to watch.”
Manzardo has professional baseball aspirations – surely that part was obvious – as well as the eye-popping stats that should allow him to reach them, perhaps sooner than later. Green has already been asked to compare his sophomore to another player he coached, Nick Gonzales, who claimed All-America honors at New Mexico State and won the NCAA batting title in 2019 with an average of .432.
Stylistically, the two may be different, but what Manzardo and Gonzales share, Green discovered, is their dogged work ethic.
“If it’s a Friday night, they’re going to be hitting,” Green said. “When their buddies are out at the bars or wherever they are, those guys are hitting. They take their life seriously and they want to play in the big leagues. Everything they do is designed to do that.”
As far as Manzardo’s hitting profile? Frankly, Green has another comparison.
“This sounds crazy, I hate the expectation piece, but AJ Reed at Kentucky in ’14,” said Green, referring to the slugger who took home the 2014 Golden Spikes Award – college baseball’s Heisman – under the coach’s tutelage. “… It’s a very simple approach, spray the ball around the field. When AJ won the Golden Spikes and the 23 home runs he had, it was 16 of them were middle-opposite. Kyle’s got an opportunity to work himself into that.”
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