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A year after his call-up, Manny Machado is still growing as a player

Along with his numbers, third baseman's adjustments in subtle areas have also impressed

By Eduardo A. Encina

The Baltimore Sun

6:15 PM EDT, August 8, 2013

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SAN FRANCISCO — When Manny Machado steps in for his first at-bat Friday night against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, it will mark the one-year anniversary of his major league debut.

It may seem like Machado has been in an Orioles uniform much longer, because his impact was instantaneous as he seamlessly fit into the clubhouse and quickly became a major piece of the Orioles' resurgence.

But Machado, who last month turned 21 and appeared in his first All-Star Game, is showing signs that he's still growing as a player.

"I think it's a story still being written," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's a competitive guy. You can tell he's been around a lot of good baseball. The comfortable thing for me is that I think Manny is going to be as good as he's capable of being. I think a lot of the challenges that guys face don't always happen on the field. He's pretty grounded. He's watched a lot of baseball and he's a fan of the game. That's important. He doesn't think there's anything beneath him, but he's not naive either. He's learned to say no a little bit more."

When the Orioles called up Machado straight from Double-A Bowie, they did so hoping he would fortify their defense at third base while they allowed his bat to adjust to major league pitching. In 165 games since, he's posted a .287/.318/.451 batting line with 17 homers, 80 RBIs and 91 runs while also proving to be one of the best defensive players in baseball at his position.

Batting in the the No. 2 spot this season, his 144 hits were one short of the major league lead entering Thursday. Among American League position players, he has the third-highest wins-above-replacement (5.2), a sabermetric statistic that measures the number of additional wins a player would contribute to a team compared to a replacement-level player. His defensive WAR (3.1) is best in the league.

But Machado hasn't been immune to growing pains.

July was the first month of the season in which Machado batted under .300, and he hit just .193, finishing the month with just three hits in his final 24 at-bats. He's also fallen off the pace in his chase of Earl Webb's single-season doubles record, getting just two of them since the start of July after having 38 through the first 83 games. (Machado would need 27 doubles in the final 48 games to match the record that has stood since 1931.)

In August, though, Machado has bounced back, going 9-for-25 (.360) in the first six games of the month.

"Everybody goes through it, not just myself," Machado said. "It's just the nature of the game. You're going to be hot today and the next day you might go down a little bit. It's just how you handle it and go out there and try to just make the game simpler and play baseball.

"I think that's something I've learned being a part of this and being under Buck," Machado added. "He takes care of me and he tells me to go out there and do what you do. It's just not a game for myself. I'm trying to make the playoffs, and that's what everybody in this clubhouse has as a goal. … If I go 0-for-20 or go 20-for-20, I just want to go out there and keep grinding."

Handling the grind

Machado still talks about the day he was called up and the impact of Showalter's first conversation with him. Machado said his new manager made him feel like he belonged in the majors and in the Orioles clubhouse.

Showalter admits that his main concern heading into Machado's first full major league season was how the young player would handle the grind. Machado has played all but 5 1/2 innings since his call-up, the exceptions being an ejection in June and an 11-0 loss to the Houston Astros last week when he was replaced in the bottom of the eighth.

Asked last week if he considered given Machado a day off, Showalter said, "I did" referring to when he substituted for Machado in that game against Houston. But Showalter said Machado has handled the mental fatigue of a season well.

"That's as much a factor as the physical skills," Showalter said. "Who mentally and emotionally can maintain the consistency for all of us? There's such a lure to give yourself a coast day if you want to because it's so relentless. Maybe the ball wont be hit to me or maybe the big at bat wont find me, but this game always rewards you and always penalizes you if you don't stay connected and engaged. He's engaged. Sometimes you see him on the bench and stuff, he's engaged. That allows me to trust him."

Machado said seeing his teammate play every day helps him. Adam Jones has also played in all 114 games this season. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has missed just one and right fielder Nick Markakis has started all by two games.

"It's mentally draining being out there every day playing every inning," Machado said. "It's tough, but being a part of this group, they've all been through it. Nick, Jonesy, they play every day. They've helped me out a lot with helping me keep it going and doing it the right way. It's something that's good about being on this team. We don't want to be on the bench. We want to be out there playing. ... I think we have a team that all of our starters play every day so it helps. We keep each other strong, which is a part of the main goal, which is the end of the year. We just want to play for each other."

Showalter has always been careful who he brings into the clubhouse — he values chemistry greatly — and Machado immediately seemed to be a fit when he joined the club a year ago.

"He's got great people around him," Showalter said. "I'm sure he bounces stuff off of [shortstop] J.J. [Hardy]. That's the great thing about having guys like Nick and J.J. and Adam and Nate [McLouth] and all these guys. When you have guys going through this, whether it's Chris [Davis] or Manny or [top position prospect Jonathan] Schoop in the future … they look around and say, 'OK, I've got to figure this out. I've got to tap into what they've got,' because that's kind of who we are."

"Still getting better"

Hardy, who shares the left side of the infield with Machado, paid his teammate one of the ultimate compliments defensively, saying he believes Machado is the best third baseman in the game.

"I don't think there's anyone better than him at third base," Hardy said. "I think he's still getting better. From Day One, his ability allowed him to be the best third baseman in the game, I think. And now, he's learning the position more, where to play certain players. There are so many times when there's a lefty and it's a good chance he's not going to hit the ball to third base and Manny started moving back toward shortstop. Not many third basemen do that. It's just nice. I can go play more up the middle and it just makes it easier for everyone. I don't think the coaches are having to tell him to move much. Maybe early they had to move him, but not they're not having to do too much."

Machado, a shortstop coming up through the minors, is often seen gleaning advice from Hardy, a first-time Gold Glove winner last season. And Hardy said he's become a better defender because Machado's range and awareness allow Hardy to play more up the middle.

"I don't know how many backhand plays I've had to make this year compared to how many I had to make in the past," Hardy said. "He gets to everything, so I play a little more up the middle. It's impressive. It's a lot of fun to play the left side with him. We're both pretty familiar with everything we do, and everything we can do. He knows where I'm at and I know where he's at. If there's a ball that's routine to me but he could come get it, he's not going to come flying across to get it."

It's only been one year, but as Machado grinds through the dog days of August in his first full season, it's clear that he's already a smarter and more conscientious player than when he first came up.

"Pace yourself and find a routine," Machado said. "It's a long season. A lot of coaches and players here, they tell me don't go out there and take 100 swings. You've got to pace yourself. This is a game of adjustments. You have to make adjustments day to day. If you don't adjust, it's going to come back and bite you in the [butt]. It's just about finding a routine and keep battling."

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LOOKING BACK

Manny Machado made his big league debut Aug. 9, 2012 against the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards, a game the Orioles lost, 8-2. He batted ninth and grounded out to short in his first plate appearance in the second inning against left-hander Will Smith. Machado's first hit was a triple in the fifth inning. "Oh man, it was a load off my shoulder," Machado said after the game. "I got my first hit, it was a triple and I'm just happy to get a hit." The following night he homered twice in a 7-1 win.