ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Manny Machado was as surprised as anyone. He figured he would open the 2013 season in pretty much the same place he was when the Orioles ended their unlikely playoff run last October.
Playing third base every day.
Batting deep in the order.
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Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Dr, St. Petersburg, FL 33705, USA
Learning on the job.
So, what was a 20-year-old semi-rookie supposed to think when manager Buck Showalter announced Monday that he will bat second against 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price when the Orioles open the regular season Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field?
"It just gives you confidence that Buck has faith in us and me,'' Machado said. "He knows that I'm going to try to do whatever I can do to help this team win. ... It helps you as a player that they just throw you out there and say, 'Go play. Do what you can do.' Obviously, you're here for a reason."
Showalter was quick to say that the move isn't exactly permanent. Machado will probably be back in the bottom third of the lineup for the second game of the series, with Nate McLouth moving into the No. 2 hole against the string of right-handed starters the Orioles are expected to face over the next week. But you can't rule anything out when you're talking about a talent such as Machado and an Orioles braintrust that has not been afraid to make unorthodox moves since Showalter was paired with baseball operations chief Dan Duquette 16 months ago.
Did anyone even expect Manny to be in the major leagues by now?
He could settle in there and make that slot in the lineup his own, just as he moved to an unfamiliar position last August and quickly established himself as an everyday major league player at third base.
The important thing to take away from the attempt to create a decent two-hole matchup against one of the best pitchers in the game is that the Orioles do not view Machado as a guy who is playing over his head at a very tender age. He came into the organization facing a mountain of expectations and — after just nine weeks of in-season major league experience — the team seems pretty confident that he's ready for just about anything.
"He's shown the ability,'' Showalter said. "I like the presentation it gives us initially. I think Manny, at some time in his career, you can hit him in a lot of different spots. He's running better. They did a lot of work with his form. When I first saw him as a young kid, he wasn't running nearly as good as he is running right now. He and Brady [Anderson] and them have done some good work with him. He has picked up some footspeed."
What remains to be seen how that will translate into his skill set near the top of the batting order.
"It depends on who you talk to, what their perception of a two hole hitter is — someone who can hit and run ... somebody who can take pitches?,'' Showalter said. "There are a lot of different [interpretations]. He is going to get more at-bats there tomorrow, potentially. But you can shake them up in a basket against Price and I don't think you'll find an advantage or a disadvantage."
Don't be deceived by the manager's wily attempt to cast this decision as just some kind of nothing-to-lose shot in the dark against a dominating pitcher who is all but impervious to such managerial machinations. Showalter has a pretty good reason for everything he does with his roster and his lineup, so you can bet there is more than one level of meaning at work here.
If nothing else, the starting lineup for Tuesday's game answers a larger question about the way Showalter views this year's team. Though 23 of the 25 players who made the Opening Day roster were on the team at some point last year, the first regular-season lineup seems to make the statement that a lot has changed since the Orioles lost Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.
The healthy return of Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold give the Orioles much more offensive potential in the bottom third of the order and greater continuity throughout the lineup. The possible right-left combo of Machado and McLouth in the second slot also allows J.J. Hardy to move back to a potentially more comfortable place in the order.
Still, Showalter does not deny that he also is letting Machado know how much confidence he has in him.
"Maybe a little bit," Showalter said, "but with our team, as you saw last year, egos didn't play into it. It's kind of what is our best front that day. It can fluctuate according to how somebody is doing, how somebody is going. I think they trust us. There's nothing personal about it, it's just putting our best foot forward on that day."
Machado could have played it cool and acted like it was no big deal. He's already got this major league thing down. But he knows how far he has come in a very short time, even if it's hard to put it into words.
"You can't,'' he said. "You really can't. It's just an experience that you are going to carry for the rest of your career and your life. Going from Double-A last year and now I'm batting second Opening Day tomorrow. I am in the big leagues. It's a big step, and I am looking forward to it."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.