CHICAGO — — When the Orioles promoted Manny Machado last August to play third base, they felt the 20-year-old's impact immediately. His defense solidified one of the club's weaknesses, and the stability he provided at the position was instrumental in the Orioles' first playoff appearance since 1997.
But this year, in Machado's first full season in the major leagues, the 2010 first-round pick has taken his game to another level, his name spoken in the same breath as past baseball wunderkinds Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle. He already is mentioned along with some of the greatest homegrown Orioles — Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson.
And today, Machado celebrates his 21st birthday.
For most people his age, success is finding a summer internship. Instead, Machado quickly has become one of the top players in the game, joining baseball's youth movement that also includes Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
Machado, who could be named an American League All-Star when the teams are announced at 6:30 tonight, ranks second in the major leagues with 118 hits. And his 38 doubles put him on pace to break Earl Webb's 82-year-old single-season record.
His play at third base evokes images of the best defensive player at the position not only in Baltimore, but in history — 16-time Gold Glove Award winner Robinson.
“Somebody at 20 years old, they usually can't compete at this level,” hitting coach Jim Presley said. “You look at it in awe of what he's able to do at 20 years old. I mean, 20-year-olds just don't do that. He's playing like he's 27, 28 years old, like he's had a few years in the big leagues, by just everything he does.”
When manager Buck Showalter put Machado in the No. 2 spot in the batting order this spring, it could have been considered a leap of faith. After all, Machado hit in the bottom third of the order last season when he was recalled from Double-A Bowie on Aug. 9.
Now he has become one of the main catalysts in a dangerous Orioles batting order. There's no doubt he belongs.
“I don't want to say I'm surprised,” Machado said of his success. “But it's been fun. It's been exciting and being a part of this team makes it that much easier. Having guys in here who root for you and knowing they have your back no matter what, it definitely makes it better for you to just go out there and play.
“And having a manager like Buck, he just lets us play our game. He trusts us, and to have him there, giving us the support we need and the trust he gives us, it just makes the transition easier. The game is already hard enough as it is, and to just be able to go out there and play the game, we know everything falls into place.”
The part of Machado's game that most impresses Presley is his consistency. Most young players excel for stretches but struggle as pitchers make adjustments when facing them. This season, Machado has persevered. He's tied for the major league lead with 34 multi-hit games.
“The only other player at his age I've seen who I can compare with him is Ken Griffey Jr., and I saw him at age 19 in the big leagues, and he was doing the same thing that this kid is doing,” said Presley, who played with Griffey in 1989 with the Seattle Mariners. “I would say, at this point, this kid is ahead of what I saw Ken Griffey Jr. do. … Griffey was a little bit more athletic. But this kid here, with what he's done offensively and playing third base like he does, that's the only other guy I've seen at a young age do what he does, besides Trout.”
When he watches Machado hit and use the entire field — pulling a ball down the left-field line in one at-bat and sitting on a breaking ball on the outside corner and taking it the opposite way in his next at-bat — Presley said he has to remind himself of Machado's age.
“He's been taught that since he's been 12 years old,” Presley said. “He's been doing this for a long time and has the right approach and played for a long time. So when he showed up here, he knew how to do it. That's the other impressive thing. The approach to hitting, he does it as good as anybody, and I've seen Miguel Cabrera, and he does it at a young age as well as anybody.”
Machado said since he was 13 years old, everything in his life focused on baseball and preparing for an opportunity to play in the major leagues. That's when he began training with former professional baseball player Frank Valdez in Miami.
“It's been Saturdays, Sundays, two-a-days,” Machado said. “I had no life, basically. I never went out. It was just baseball. I love the game so much that I was just working with him nonstop. And thank God for him; he helped me create a routine. He played in the big leagues a little bit, so he kind of knew what was going to happen, so he showed me a lot about this game and how to pick a routine at a young age.”
Machado has also called New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez a mentor. He's trained with Rodriguez in the past, and the comparison is natural, given they both came up as highly touted prospects out of Miami with Dominican roots, but Machado now often says he wants to create his own legacy.
Though Machado's bat has helped him receive national recognition in his chase for the history books, Showalter regularly points out how he's been more impressed with the third baseman's defense. Machado's highlight-worthy plays often get noticed — the greatest example is when he charged a ball in September and faked a throw to first base before catching Tampa Bay Rays runner Rich Thompson off third base — but it is his steadiness with routine plays that most impresses Showalter.
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“He's got imagination to his game,” Showalter said. “There's stuff that just doesn't get noticed. You watch his imagination. … He's also developing a routine arm. He's got a little slot where he plays it. The 5-4 feed. When you throw it in the box, he and [shortstop J.J. Hardy] can throw the ball in the box, you can speed the redirection up in the pivot [on a double play].”
While Machado's teammates have seen him routinely make difficult defensive plays look easy and hit like a veteran at the plate, it still surprises them sometimes.
“First and foremost, he's got the talent, and I think when you've got that type of talent you're able to be confident in what you're able to do on the baseball field,” Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth said. “But I think there are a lot of guys who have a lot of talent who it hasn't translated for. Really from the minute he got here, he doesn't panic, he seems to be able to slow the game down pretty well. That's tough to do for anybody, especially being that young.”
As for Machado, he will celebrate his 21st birthday in New York playing with his teammates against the Yankees. He'd like to celebrate with a win at Yankee Stadium that will help the Orioles in a tight race in the American League East.
“Yeah, I'm definitely excited to turn 21,” Machado said. “Everybody is when they turn 21. You're legal for everything now. I'm definitely excited, especially to spend it with the people I spend 180 days with. It's definitely an exciting moment.”