SARASOTA, Fla. – Minutes after Manny Machado began taking ground balls at third base Sunday morning in isolation on the artificial turf field of the Ed Smith Stadium complex, Orioles manager Buck Showalter’s golf cart zoomed across the outfield and positioned itself right behind Machado in left field.
“Are you nervous?” Showalter yelled out to Machado, a question he often asked his sudden superstar before games during his first full major league season last year.
Between ground balls, Machado turned around and gave his manager a familiar answer.
“No. Why should I be?”
All eyes were on Machado, the Orioles’ 21-year-old All-Star third baseman, when he arrived at spring training Sunday for his first workout with the team since offseason left knee surgery last October to repair a torn medial patellofemoral ligament.
Machado remains limited in what he can do. He won’t be cleared to play in games until he is cleared by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Los Angeles Dodgers team physician who performed the surgery. Machado expects that appointment won’t take place until mid-March.
For a player who made so many dynamic plays for the Orioles last season, Machado is currently mired in the game’s basics. He can take live batting practice, field grounders without sudden lateral movement and run straight sprints, as he did Sunday.
He wasn’t spectacular, but the sight of Machado — last seen on the field crumbling to the ground after his knee buckled while running through the first base bag during a Sept. 23 game in Tampa Bay — was a welcome sight for the Orioles.
“I felt great,” Machado said. “It was my first time out there on the field, the first time putting on an Orioles shirt and doing some team activities, but overall, it felt great. I’m just ready to get this show on the road.”
Machado can’t yet make sudden moves, whether it’s running the bases, sliding or making diving plays. And he’s making adjustments in his running form to prevent another knee injury, which was linked to a kneecap he dislocated two years ago in the minors. Strengthening his glutealmuscles, he said, is a big part of his rehabilitation.
“It’s just a bad habit I’ve had,” he said. “Now at this point, it’s just getting that muscle memory of doing it the right way. When I stepped on the bag that day, my knee buckled, and that’s when the injury happened. This time, when I step on the bag, it’s going to have more force and strength to hold my knee in the right place and not allow it to go either inward or outward.”
Despite the restrictions, Machado can participate in most routine baseball activities during these first days of camp.
“We’re following the doctor’s protocol,” Showalter said. “He can take ground balls straight on. He can hit. He can run straight on. But we’re not going side to side. We’re not turning bases. We’re not [asking], ‘Why don’t you go try this, Manny, and see if you’re ahead of schedule?’”
Machado concedes that holding back, while necessary, hasn’t been easy.
“I think it’s the hardest part,” Machado said. “The way I have to approach things now is mentally to do the things right. I’m training my body now, training my mind to do certain things when I run and when I cut and do the certain things I need to be doing. And then at the same time, I’ve got to think that I can’t overdo it. I don’t want to overdo it at this point with so close [as I am] and how far I’ve come.”
On Sunday, Showalter wanted to get ahead of any media firestorm. He said Machado will talk once about his rehab and then concentrate on the field. But Machado’s health might be the biggest storyline this spring. He will be a humongous part of the Orioles’ success in 2104.
Once he became the club’s everyday third baseman in August 2012, Machado solidified the club’s defense en route to a postseason berth. Last year, he became an All-Star, won the American League Gold Glove at third base and the Platinum Glove for the best overall defensive player in the league.
Machado also led the AL with 51 doubles, and his Wins Above Replacement value (6.5) was the fifth highest among all position players in baseball.
“You don’t need to pontificate,” Showalter said. “He knows how much we like him and how proud we are of him and how important he is to our club.”
What Showalter can control is how those closest to his recovery react. He said players, coaches and staff, himself included, won’t be harping on updates from Machado. The Orioles manager doesn’t want to get distracted by timetables.
“My big thing is — I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again today — I do not want a setback,” Showalter said. [If that happens, “shame on us or shame on Manny. … That’s why we’re not talking about, ‘We’re ahead of schedule.’ We’re not ahead of schedule. You look at the time frame and experience level of stuff like this, and that’s what they base that on, but they are not a bunch of robots, and everybody’s got [a] different skeletal structure.”
Machado has bought into that approach. Asked Sunday whether he believed he’d be ready by Opening Day, Machado, as he did two weeks ago at FanFest, offered no guarantees.
“It’s tough to say,” he said. “It really is. I’ve gotten so much stronger than I have in the past. My legs have tremendously improved on everything, running and strength-wise. … I still have to perfect some things, like today, when we were sprinting. … I want to be perfect when I go out there. I don’t want to [do it halfway]. I want to be 110 percent perfect. … I want to play as many games as I can. If I miss the first week or two weeks, whatever it may be, once I get going, I’m not going to stop.”
To all parties involved, it is paramount that once Machado returns, he is healthy enough to stay.
“Most of this, I’m going to rely on Manny, because we’re real close to reaching the point where structurally, he’s fine,” Showalter said. “What he says is gold, with the exception [that] if he says, ‘I’m ready to take balls side to side’ before the doctors say that’s OK. … I think he has the right amount of caution here.
“I think at some point here, whenever it is, we’re going to say ‘OK, turn him loose,’” Showalter added. “And then his body will tell him and then he’ll tell us. I think we’re going to have our arms around it. I don’t care if we wait a week, a month. There’s always going to be that first. There’s a speed and tempo down here from workouts and a speed and tempo in the [spring] games, and then there’s another one. And then it’s every day” during the season.
Machado, who played in all 156 Orioles games last season before sustaining his injury, acknowledged Sunday that fatigue might have played a role in injury, so he wants to make sure he’s ready for a long season before he returns.
“I have to [be able to] do that every day,” Machado said. “I need to give 110 percent. … You know how Buck is. You’ve got to play every day and give 110 percent. We’re not trying to be in first place in August or July or June. We’re trying to make the playoffs, and to do that, you have to be mentally ready and physically ready.”