Manny Machado's home run in the fourth inning Friday night sparked the Orioles in their 3-1 win over the Cleveland Indians – a solo blast to straightaway center on a 3-0 pitch from right-hander Trevor Bauer. But it was the highlight defensive play the Orioles shortstop made three innings later that saved the game and helped end the team's six-game losing streak.
Protecting a two-run lead in the seventh inning, left-handed reliever Richard Bleier was in trouble. He put runners at the corners with two outs in the inning when José Ramírez hit a ball up the middle that Bleier assumed would be a run-scoring hit to make it a one-run game and put the tying run in scoring position.
Machado, playing toward the middle, ranged to his left and made a diving play to snag Ramírez's grounder on the edge of the outfield grass, quickly transferred the ball to his right hand and from his stomach flipped the ball on one hop to second baseman Luis Sardiñas to get base runner Jason Kipnis for the force out to escape the inning.
"It could have been a lot different had Manny not made that play up the middle," Bleier said. "That was really an incredible play. I'm just glad that I had front-row seats to that play. Turned around like, 'Aw, that ball's up the middle.' Like, oh wow, that was an incredible play."
Machado, whose transition from third base – where he was a Gold Glove defender – to shortstop has had ups and downs, said the key to executing the play was making sure he knew how much time he had to make a play at second.
"Just [different] things," Machado said. "Knowing the clock like [manager] Buck [Showalter] and [infield coach] Bobby [Dickerson] always say, knowing who's running, anticipating the out. I anticipated going up the middle a little bit there and that, at the end of the day, it was just staying in the zone and knowing how much time I had.
"It's just reaction. I'll probably look back and go see it on the MLB app, but just trying to make plays for my team, trying to make outs. At the end of the day, it's about staying in the zone, staying under control and being able to make that good throw to second base and knowing who is running at the same time because I could have gotten up and thrown."
Having the internal clock to make plays at shortstop was something that Machado's predecessor at shortstop, J.J. Hardy, excelled at, and something Machado learned from Hardy in becoming a plus defender at third. But Showalter said making a flip from your stomach to convert a play isn't by the book but is an example of the creativity Machado possesses.
"That's imagination," Showalter said. "Sometimes we try to take that away from players wrongly. You see it a lot with guys, especially kids from Latin America. They have such a great imagination on plays and they do it from playing freely sandlot or whatever. If you start trying to make them all robotic … they just have such great imagination and I think you make a mistake regardless of where they're from of taking that away and trying to make them all … The way J.J. (Hardy) plays isn't going to work for someone else. And the way Manny plays is not going to work for somebody else. You've got to sometimes let them have that freedom."
The play definitely saved the day for Bleier, who went on to retire the side in the eighth before giving way to Darren O'Day, who pitched a scoreless ninth for the save.
"It's a huge boost for the team and for me," Bleier said of Machado's play. "Kind of thinking, OK, evaluating the situation [thinking it was a hit] and then all of a sudden the play is made and it just changes the whole inning. He looks good at shortstop, that's for sure."