Performances like Sunday's are what make the lean years worthwhile.
Play badly enough for long enough, then scout, draft, and develop well enough, and with any luck your high draft picks will become special players. Perhaps those special players will single-handedly win you a series-clincher on the road in the middle of an August pennant chase the way Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy did for the Orioles Sunday.
Machado drove three home runs in the first three innings, and Bundy had a career-high nine strikeouts in the Orioles' 10-2 win over the Chicago White Sox. The two top draft picks, selected third overall and fourth overall a year apart, are boosting their franchise in another playoff push.
"It's a big part of our team," catcher Matt Wieters said. "We're built on a lot of guys who we feel can carry a team at certain points. Manny had a great game today, and Dylan was the stopper to let Manny drive in some runs."
Thanks to Machado, Bundy didn't have to be as good as he was.
Machado helped the Orioles to a 2-0 lead early with a towering home run to center field in the first inning, then hit a laser for a three-run home run into the White Sox bullpen in left field in the second. When he split the difference and went to left-center in the third inning for his third home run, Bundy had all the support he'd need.
Such an outburst, however, hasn't been as common for the Orioles of late. Machado has been one of the reasons why. The All-Star third baseman was at a scalding pace to start the season, entering July batting .334 with a 1.001 OPS and 18 home runs before skidding through the month. From July 1 to the time the Orioles arrived in Chicago, Machado hit .209 with a .621 OPS and four home runs.
He collected three hits Friday, one Saturday, then the three home runs Sunday to possibly turn things around for good.
"To go out there and get three homers, it's pretty cool, pretty awesome," Machado said. "I'm not even going to lie, it's exciting. I've been trying to find my swing and today I finally, this whole series, I've been kind of squaring up some balls, which is fun. Today, they finally went out of the park."
Manager Buck Showalter said the team's reactions to Machado's feats like this suffer for the fact that they know he's capable of so much.
"Nothing really surprises us anymore," Showalter said. We just kind of look at each other and go, 'Hmm, it's not that easy.' The game slows down for him sometimes, and he just continually does things that not many people do."
Bundy had a simple but similar reaction to what he watched from the dugout.
"'Wow' — I think that's really what I said," Bundy recalled. "I saw it go out. It's impressive what he can do. I hope he does it for a long time."
Machado, likewise, heaped praise on what Bundy did Sunday, and has been doing since providing the Orioles rotation with a jolt after the All-Star break.
"It's awesome," he said. "Dylan has been pitching stellar. He has been getting the rock every day, and whenever he does, he's going out there doing it big. It's good to have him on our side. … He's pounding the zone, he's throwing strikes and he's keeping batters off balance. It's been fun to watch."
Several inside the Orioles clubhouse, including Showalter, were most impressed with how Bundy performed in the circumstances that Machado and the Orioles' offense conspired to create for him. In beating White Sox starter James Shields as thoroughly as they did, the Orioles offense kept Bundy in the dugout for long stretches in the first few innings, and put the game out of reach quickly.
"I was really impressed with Dylan's maturity coming out with that type of lead and pitching the way he did," Showalter said. "I know some 10-year veterans that have trouble pitching there. But he's pretty tunnel vision."
Bundy said he had to remind himself to keep focused around the fifth inning, but the end result was another small but significant step in his growth as a starting pitcher. He allowed two runs on four hits, but crossed the 90-pitch threshold for the first time as a starter in the majors.
He was as crisp as ever despite the circumstances, and is on quite a run since settling into the Orioles' rotation. Bundy has struck out 31 in 27 innings over five starts, with a 3.00 ERA and 0.852 WHIP.
"I think he's thrown well for the last three starts — even, really, the first start he made when he was amped up a little bit," Wieters said. "I think the progression is there just because he works hard. I think he's going to go out there, and you know each fifth day he goes out there and pitches, he's going to give you his best shot to win. That's all you ask for as a teammate, and that's all you ask for as a catcher."
Machado, the third pick in 2010, has been producing for nearly five years now. Bundy, the fourth pick in 2011, is just now providing serious value for the big leaue club after injuries prevented the type of fast growth that was expected from such a highly regarded prospect.
It won't all come down to these two on a veteran roster like the Orioles have, and even if it does, not every day will be like Sunday. Machado could be turning back into one of the American League's best hitters, or this weekend could be an aberration. Bundy, the Orioles insist, is healthy and in the rotation for the long haul, but even Showalter will acknowledge nothing is given with a pitcher's health.
All that adds significance to days like Sunday, when Machado breaks out at the plate and Bundy places another golden brick in the wall he's building between his present and the wretched injury history that's behind him.
"It was just an overall great day," Machado said.