The Orioles' 2013 season plummeted from modestly disappointing to something far gloomier the instant Manny Machado took an off-kilter step Monday in Tampa Bay and wrenched his left knee.
But the news was not as bad as feared, as an MRI revealed Tuesday that Machado had not torn any major ligaments. The All-Star third baseman tore his medial patellofemoral ligament, which Orioles trainer Richie Bancells described as a smaller ligament that keeps the kneecap from sliding laterally.
Bancells said Machado could recover with six to eight weeks of rest and strengthening exercises, meaning he would likely be ready for spring training next year barring a setback.
The news left club officials relieved after a tense day awaiting the diagnosis on their brightest young star.
“It’s good news for the clubhouse, as much for the person as for the team,” said manager Buck Showalter. “I know they’ve come to really respect Manny for the way he carries himself and the way he’s presented himself.”
Asked earlier about Machado’s mindset, Showalter said the injury “scared him a lot.”
“In general, baseball players with that injury can get back to playing at a high level,” said Daryl Osbahr, an orthopedic surgeon and director of sports medicine research at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital.
Machado, who was at the ballpark Tuesday but did not speak with reporters, will seek a second opinion, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. He is expected to return for a check-up with team orthopedist John Wilckens in four weeks.
Duquette said Machado suffered a similar injury on the same kneecap when he played for Class-A Delmarva in 2011.
That could be a reason to consider surgery instead of treating the injury with rest, said Osbahr, the Union Memorial surgeon. He said Machado’s doctors will also want to check for related injuries such as cartilage damage around the kneecap.
“The decision on whether to treat it with surgery or not is a complex one,” Osbahr said.
With three straight losses to the wild-card-leading Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles had essentially forfeited their postseason chances before Machado collapsed to the field in agony.
But the tone rapidly shifted to funereal Monday evening as images of the fallen wunderkind beamed across the country. Teammates stared silently from the dugout as Machado yowled in pain. From around the sports world, condolences and prayers flooded Twitter.
Fans remained aghast at the injury as they filed into Camden Yards on Tuesday for the first game of the season’s final homestand.
“It was awful,” said Steve Hood of Baltimore, who watched the injury happen live on television. “I thought it was at least a year he would be out.”
Nick Draksler of Baltimore said his wife “freaked out” as he repeatedly watched a clip of the injury on YouTube.
“If it was as bad as I thought it was ... he might never be able to play back to where he was,” Draksler said.
He felt better Tuesday evening as news of the diagnosis emerged.
“If he can function normally in spring training, he should be OK,” Draksler said. “And I think it might even save the whole franchise, because the Orioles need catalyst players to keep the momentum going.”
Before the injury, healthy perspective on the season seemed possible.
No, the Orioles could not recapture the splendor of 2012, when they seemed to win every close game and streaked to the franchise’s first postseason berth in 15 years. But this season still carried significant pleasures; five Orioles made the All-Star Game, and Chris Davis set the team's single-season home run record. After a generation of losing, Baltimore still had a winning team built around a stable core.
But it would be hard to overstate how essential Machado is to any feelings of optimism. At 21, he already played third based with a mastery that evoked comparisons to Brooks Robinson. At bat, he flicked doubles to all corners of the park. In the clubhouse, goofing with his young nephew, he looked even younger, like a kid who could be dating your daughter or working the counter at a local burger joint.
Few stories in sports stir as much joy as the flowering of a prodigy. There is something almost transcendent in the unlimited possibility of it. If Machado could range within a few feet of the visiting dugout and Yankee Stadium and still throw the runner out, what couldn't he do?
When the fragility of such promise is revealed, the corresponding worry cuts deep.
“You know it’s part of sports, but you hate it,” said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, whose own breakout season in 2005 ended with a scary elbow injury. “To see a kid go through what he went through yesterday, at the end of such a phenomenal season, my heart broke for him.”
Baseball history is littered with phenoms who were struck down mid-ascent. The range of post-injury outcomes is vast.
Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer won 15 games and beat Sandy Koufax in the World Series at age 20. But he missed large portions of the 1967 and 1968 seasons with biceps tendinitis that led to a torn rotator cuff. Palmer, who has watched Machado’s development from the television booth, said he wondered if his career was lost.
He returned good as new in 1969 and won another 245 games.
“It can be a good time for reflection on how fortunate you are,” Palmer said of a significant injury. “I know for me, I realized that God had given me a great gift, just as he’s given Manny great agility and great hands.”
Palmer said he’d urge Machado to take solace from the great advances in sports medicine in recent decades. He noted Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who tore ligaments in his knee at the end of the 2011 season and returned to win NFL Most Valuable Player honors in 2012.
“Look around to the NBA, the NFL and baseball, where we’ve seen guys have horrific injuries and come back even better,” Palmer said. “I know Manny is disappointed, because he wants to play every game. It’s a significant speed bump but not anything where he can’t go on to have the great career we know he’s on track for.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Nicholas Fouriezos contributed to this article.