Asking a 20-year-old rookie to change positions and join a pennant race doesn't sound smart. But like so much else for the O's, Manny Machado has worked out perfectly
The Orioles know it. They know you are not supposed to win 16 straight extra-inning games, a threshold surpassed only once in major league history. You are not supposed to go 27--9 in one-run games, a .750 winning percentage that would equal the best ever. And you are not supposed to have an 87--65 record—guaranteeing the franchise's first winning season in 15 years—despite having scored six fewer runs than you've allowed. Yet the leaders in the AL wild-card race see little reason to dwell on any of it. Says their manager, Buck Showalter, "If I brought up something like that in the dugout or in the clubhouse—'Hey, this is really weird, look at this!'—it'd fall underneath the 'no s---' category."
You are also not supposed to call up a Double A shortstop—one who was barely 20 and hitting .266, good for the youngest player in the Eastern League but not, you know, very good—and make him your everyday third baseman. But all summer Showalter and first-year G.M. Dan Duquette had Manny Machado surreptitiously take ground balls at third before the gates opened for Bowie Baysox games, and they called him up to the majors on Aug. 9.
Promoting Machado is one of several decisions that have worked out beautifully in the Orioles' magical season. Showalter and Duquette became convinced in spring training that Machado, the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft, could help them ahead of schedule. While most young players frantically rush through everything, Machado never did. "He's a natural," says Duquette. "He has all the tools, he has all the instincts and he has good fundamentals. What else are you looking for?"
Since Machado joined them, the Orioles have the AL's best record, 27--14. He has held his own offensively, batting .267 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 41 games. He even hit a game-winning, 14th-inning single on Sept. 13 and spent the next eight hours wearing a green dress as a victim of rookie hazing. But Machado's biggest impact has come in the field: He solidified the O's defense, which yielded an AL--high 53 unearned runs before his arrival and a baseball-low five since.
He has at times been spectacular, such as when he ended the top of the ninth inning of a tie game against the Rays by charging a grounder, feigning a throw to first and then spinning around and catching the runner he had lured into rounding third. "I just decided to pump fake," he says. "Never done it, ever, in my life. I decided to see if it works."
Conventional wisdom, and the law of averages, might still catch up with the Orioles and Machado. But as they march toward their first playoff appearance since 1997, and possibly an AL East crown, there's not much time left for it to happen.
STRETCHING THE POINT Baltimore has been the AL's best team since Machado arrived in August and solidified their D.