From the beginning of his baseball career at Rice University, Craig Manuel has been known as having a knack for coming through in a tough spot. The senior catcher was plucked up by Rice at a baseball camp in the summer of 2008 after Manuel had already committed to play junior college ball in Florida, a fortuitous find for a team still lacking a catcher in its signing class. With junior Diego Seastrunk (Will Rice '10) not used to catching after moving from third base, Seastrunk moved to the designated hitter spot, and Manuel began catching just a few weeks into his collegiate career and helping to orchestrate Ryan Berry's (Hanszen '10) two-hit shutout of Texas A&M University in the 2009 Minute Maid Classic. Manuel picked off 12 hitters that year and made just one error, while hitting impressively with runners in scoring position, batting .404 in those situations. Still, that last sentence describes a microcosm of his career: a great defensive asset, whose left-handed batting stance made him a great situational hitter but not a middle-of-the-order type of guy.
Flash forward to the 2011 season with Seastrunk graduated and Manuel in full control of the backstop position. Junior third baseman Anthony Rendon is still nagged by an ankle injury and is targeted by opposing pitchers for intentional walks, and junior outfielder Jeremy Rathjen tears his ACL before the first month of the season is over. Suddenly, Manuel found himself thrust into a position to hit in the five-hole on a regular basis. He commented on what his expectations were of his own performance and how those injuries were catalysts for his 35 RBIs last season, nearly equal to his combined total from 2009 to 2010.
"[I did not really have] personal expectations; I just wanted to do whatever I could to help us win, and that meant I needed to be a complete hitter, be able to bunt, hit and run and swing at pitches I could hit and take the ones I couldn't," Manuel said.
Manuel also noted that the team never experienced any type of mental doubt, even after a poor early-season record left the Owls scampering to try to recover their national seed hopes.
"No mental doubts, but it was tough last year losing Rathjen so early in the year, and I think Rendon's injury hurt his swing, and it's just impossible to replace guys like that. But we had guys step up and fill in. We just couldn't reach our goals," he said.
While Manuel's offensive prowess (third on team in batting average, fourth on team in RBIs, second in on-base percentage) gave him rave reviews from writers across the nation with Head Coach Wayne Graham calling him "the best situational hitter in the country," his experience with the pitching staff has earned him the respect and trust of the coaches. In an era when most college coaches call pitches exclusively, leading the catcher to simply be the middleman between the coach and pitcher, Graham expects his pitchers to have a reliable pitching acumen when it comes to knowing the opposite lineup.
"Before last year, I'd say that I called about 95 percent of pitches, but last year Graham took more control and about half way through last season he started calling the game," Manuel said. "The edge is in the tempo; if the pitcher and I are on the same page the game speeds up and there isn't any down time while the pitcher is shaking me off."
Inherent in the player/coach trust is Manuel's invitation to consult Graham and the other coaches on his view of the pitching staff's current state.
"Coach usually has a good feel for the pitchers. He's been coaching a long time and can see basically everything from the dugout, so when he comes to talk to me it's to confirm what he's seeing and to get a different perspective on the game."
One pitcher who needed little counseling last year is sophomore righty Austin Kubitza. After beginning as the third starter in the weekend rotation, Kubitza rose to the role of staff ace with his seminal moment coming in a shutout of A&M at the Minute Maid Classic. As his battery mate, Manuel talked about what he saw from "Kubby" in that game last year.
"His big moment was when we played Texas A&M at Minute Maid," Manuel said. "We were kind of giving him a hard time about being nervous, because it was one of his first big starts, and there was a huge crowd. He just looked at us and said something like ‘You guys just score one run, and we'll win.' And he did just that; he threw a shutout, and we won. He was impressive that night for anyone, let alone a freshman."
Given Manuel's experience with catching Owl pitching greats like Ryan Berry (Hanszen '10), Tony Cingrani (Martel '11) and Mike Ojala (Martel '10), it is high praise for Kubitza when Manuel speaks to Kubitza's original pitching ability compared to the others.
"Kubby is different from any guy I've ever caught," Manuel said. "Cingrani was a left-handed flame thrower, and Oj had pinpoint control with a devastating curveball. Kubby is different. He throws his fastball in the low 90s, but it runs about a foot in to a righty. His slider is in the low to mid 80s and moves a foot the other way. That combination is almost impossible to hit."
Other names that Manuel expects to have breakout seasons from the mound are senior right-handed pitcher Matthew Reckling, who has improved his command over the offseason, and junior right-handed pitcher J.T. Chargois. What he doesn't expect to change is his nickname of "Bunny," ironically adorned by fans in homage to his endless hustle and lack of speed in comparison with his swifter teammates.
"Well, I've had a lot of fan-given nicknames over the years," Manuel said. "First, I was the penguin because my running style is more of a waddle. Then, I got a little faster, and they started calling me cheetah. But that never stuck. Now I'm Bunny, and I guess that one is here to stay. I think it's fun, and, if the fans enjoy it, that's all that matters. I'm just happy to be on their good side; there is a lot of worse things I could be called."
Once his career, characterized by clutch offensive hitting and defensive near-perfection, comes to end, Manuel expects to take his knowledge of the game passed on by Graham and transfer it to coaching.
"I probably won't be too far from the game," Manuel said. "I can see myself coaching. Baseball is what I love to do, and I couldn't imagine what I would do away from the game."