Manny Machado's scalding start to the season might not be that surprising to those who have seen the Orioles third baseman blossom into one of the game's top young stars. But even Machado's teammates express wonderment at his consistency at the plate over the team's first 14 games.
Machado entered Friday's series-opening, 4-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals leading the major leagues with a .407 batting average and 24 hits. His .780 slugging percentage and 1.251 on-base plus slugging led American League hitters and trailed only Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
Ask around the Orioles clubhouse about Machado's start and eyes open wide. It's a small sample size, and April numbers hardly ever hold up over a 162-game season, but after looking at the way Machado is working his at-bats these days, the Orioles know they could be witnessing something special.
"I question whether it's a hot start or this is who he really is," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "I feel like there's times in the dugout when I'm going, 'There's no reason he shouldn't be hitting .400 this year.' Last night, he drops down to .396 and it's like, 'OK, he's getting a hit. Got to get back to .400. Got to get that double.' … So far, it's been every single day. He's been a lot more focused this year in a very, very good way. Not that it was bad before, but he's very focused and it seems like he's very motivated. He's been impressive."
Machado homered in the sixth inning Friday to extend his hitting streak to 15 games. He has hit safely in every one of the Orioles' games this season and had multiple hits in seven of his first 14, including the past three coming into Friday.
With Friday's homer, Machado has had at least one extra-base hit in each of his past six games. That includes Thursday's game-winning hit, an RBI bloop double into right field in the eighth inning of the Orioles' 3-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards.
That blooper, which dropped between three Toronto defenders, wasn't Machado's best — he's smoking balls over fences and into the gaps with an uncommon sound — it was more an example of how much things are going right for Machado.
But Machado has made his own opportunities by being selective at the plate, as have his Orioles teammates. And while Machado isn't seeing more pitches per at-bat this year (3.37) than last (3.91), his controlled at-bats are what manager Buck Showalter said he has noticed most during Machado's start.
"I haven't seen him get out of himself," Showalter said. "He's stayed selective. And a lot of times as your reputation or track record evolves, you realize what they're trying to do to you. Let's face it, they pitched around him two or three times in that last series. That's going to happen some more. And not letting them get him out of the zone [is important].
"But the problem is, a guy hits the ball [a few inches] off the plate, hits it away down the corner for a double," Showalter added. "These guys have great range with the bat and you don't want to take that aggressiveness from them, but he's had some real mature at-bats, where he didn't get emotional during the at-bat and that's what I really like seeing. He hasn't let anything emotional get in the way of having good at-bats."
Before getting the winning hit in Thursday's game, Machado stepped to the plate in a tie game with two outs in the 10th and two runners on base Wednesday. Instead of trying to be the hero, he let Jays reliever Joe Biagini pitch around him, drawing a five-pitch walk. The game ended on the next batter when Caleb Joseph scored on a passed ball with Adam Jones at the plate.
"He's not going up there and trying to overdo it," first baseman Chris Davis said. "I think a lot of times when you're young and you feel good you want to go to the well every time and be the hero every time, but really watching him the other night with the passed ball we won the game on, the at-bat before that, Manny's at-bat before Jonesy really set that up. He was very patient and didn't try to be the hero and just pass the baton. I think guys are buying in. That's big.
"Obviously, we all want to swing the bat. It's all a part of the game. Our main goal here is to win, and I think that's a question everyone asks themselves on every given night: 'What do I have to do to help the team win?' Are you willing to sacrifice your own personal goals for the team goals?"
But Machado can't maintain his .400 average, considering no major leaguer has batted .400 for a season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
"Who knows?" Hardy said. "You can say that, but the way he looks this year, as consistent as every at-bat has been, why not?"