ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — — Orioles manager Buck Showalter unveiled a pull shift on a pair of left-handed hitters in Tuesday's regular season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, placing third baseman Manny Machado in shallow right field.
In the eighth inning of the Orioles' 7-4 win over Tampa Bay, the shift worked by design. That's when Kelly Johnson hit a ball off reliever Darren O'Day that normally would have been a single between first baseman Chris Davis and second baseman Brian Roberts, but instead one-hopped on the outfield turf to Machado, who threw out Johnson at first by a step.
The Orioles played the shift on Rays lefties Johnson and Matt Joyce, and while that was the only ball hit to Machado in the shift, Joyce hit a high pop-up in foul ground past third base that shortstop J.J. Hardy had to race over to catch in the second inning.
Machado said he's never played on the right side of the infield — he said he played a little bit of right field as a teenager — but his range and arm strength made him the ideal candidate to play that shallow right-field role.
"It's totally different," Machado said. "There are some guys we're running shift on that run faster than others. It's just something where you have to be aware and pay attention to the game and see who is running. There are some balls that are going to be hit that you can't just stay back on. It's more of an aggressive play. You've still go to charge everything, and at the same time you have to protect to the right of [Davis] and the left of [second baseman Brian Roberts]. That's a big responsibility."
The Orioles practiced the shift during the second half of spring training and even took infield from the shift on occasion during the spring.
"We had about seven or eight things we wanted to focus on this spring," Showalter said. "And one was practicing the shift defense, like how do you cover second base on a stolen base, if he steals second who's covering third, how are the cutoffs and relays from that? If a ball goes down into the right-field corner, the third baseman is the lead guy on the relay, so who covers third?
"It's a lot easier to play it on turf than it is on grass because a lot of the infields have a big lip there and the ball gets to you a little faster."
Showalter said Machado was actually a step too deep on Johnson's ball, but he was pleased with the result.
"We were talking to him and showing him the overhead today that if he's a step closer, he probably catches it on the fly," Showalter said. "I don't want him trying to throw people out from right-center field."
Said Machado: "It's something new I've got to learn. It's a new responsibility to be but it's going to help our team out. I kind of look forward to it. It's going to help our pitchers in different ways."
For the first two games of the season, Showalter has had two different leadoff hitters: outfielders Nick Markakis on Tuesday and Nate McLouth on Wednesday.
McLouth, a left-handed hitter, didn't play against Tampa Bay's lefty ace David Price, while Markakis, also a lefty hitter, started both games, facing right-hander Jeremy Hellickson on Wednesday.
With Hellickson on the mound, McLouth led off and Markakis moved to his more conventional No. 3 spot — where he had batted for most of his career before he was forced into hitting leadoff last July. Roberts, the club's leadoff hitter for much of the past decade when healthy, is hitting ninth as he plays his way back from injury. Nolan Reimold, who began 2012 as the leadoff hitter, was in the eighth spot Wednesday.
"We kind of created those options last year by need, but between Nate and Brian and Nicky we've got multiple guys. We have to see where Nolan is going to fall," Showalter said. "But we've got to take advantage of everybody's skills. I want to try to get as many guys' feet wet early in the season as I can. We'll see what tomorrow's lineup brings."
McLouth said he was unaware that he'd be hitting leadoff when he came into the clubhouse Wednesday, and he's not going to worry whether it's a temporary thing or his primary role in 2013. In 24 games, 23 starts, McLouth batted .254 with a .340 on-base percentage and six stolen bases in six attempts as the Orioles leadoff hitter.
"Maybe it's for a day, maybe it's not. Maybe it's for a while," said McLouth, who has started 303 games at leadoff in his career. "But I'm comfortable leading off, I'm comfortable hitting second, eighth, wherever."
Gonzalez excited about opening start
Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez opened last season new to the Orioles organization, pitching in Triple-A without a defined role. So being able to open this season as the team's No. 3 starter is a welcome change.
"I think it's much easier having a defined role," said Gonzalez, who will start Thursday against Tampa Bay. "You're more comfortable. Whatever I did last year, I'm going to try to go out there and build on it and be myself. Go out there and pitch the way I was taught. I've done this for a lot of years going back to Little League. … I know it's a little different. There's a lot of competition, but we like that."
Around the horn
Machado hit out of the No. 2 hole for this second straight game Wednesday. A right-handed hitter, Machado batted second in Tuesday's season opener to follow Markakis against Price, but Showalter wanted to see how Machado fares at No. 2 regardless of the pitcher. … Showalter acknowledged doing a double take when Reimold ran into the outfield wall after making a catch. Reimold was limited to 16 games last year after leaping into the stands to make a catch in April. "It's good to see him have some fearlessness out there, but hopefully he'll be smart with it," Showalter said. … The Orioles entered Wednesday's game with the third-most wins in baseball since Aug. 22, 2011, with 116, trailing only the Washington Nationals (118) and Texas Rangers (117).