The first half of the 2016 baseball season is set to be memorialized in the traditional way at Tuesday night's All-Star game in San Diego, with droves of substitutions and stilted dugout interviews and, somehow, Julio Teheran pitching to Eduardo Nuñez at a crucial spot in the late innings. This is how it goes every year, regardless of whatever singular pieces of brilliance occur in the three months leading up to it.
This year, those three months were dominated in piecemeal. A long stretch to start the year belonged to the Chicago Cubs, who won games in such varied styles and by such wide margins that it seemed as if someone had told them they could pick up two wins in nine innings if they thumped the other team impressively enough. Later on, Clayton Kershaw became the story, striking out everyone and walking no one, keeping the wounded Los Angeles Dodgers afloat until he went down with a herniated disk in his back. Recent weeks have seen the San Francisco Giants make their usual even-year charge, overtaking the Cubs for the most wins in baseball, and the Cleveland Indians didn't lose a game for two weeks. It played like a relay race, a patchwork sprint of surges and fumbles.
Though he hasn't commandeered national headlines in the manner of those teams and players listed above, this year has also belonged to Manny Machado. The Baltimore Orioles third baseman and tertiary member of MLB's topmost tier of young stars—put Mike Trout or Bryce Harper first, if you like, but Machado always brings up the rear—is having the best season of his short career, and one of the best anywhere in the sport. His OPS is up 100 points from last year, when he finished fourth in MVP voting. His team is at the top of a division nobody predicted it could win. He has played his usual Gold Glove defense at third and, when J.J. Hardy was hurt for a stretch, he slid over to short and played just as well there.
Machado's season surely won't be a B-plot for much longer if he keeps it up, and if the Orioles can stay in front of the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays in the East. It will be understandable, though, if it doesn't jump up to top-of-the-hour status. What we're watching, with this 23-year-old franchise cornerstone, doesn't have the look of something rare, and it's not even fully new. It looks like something he'll be doing for quite a while.
If Machado has made a bigger than usual blip on your radar at any point this season, it was probably around the first week of June. That's when the Kansas City Royals' Yordano Ventura put a 99 mile-an-hour fastball squarely in his ribs and Machado, with a heavy limp, charged out to throw a right hook and wrestle—literally wrestle, as he delivered a fairly accomplished DDT—Ventura to the ground.
A brawl at the mound doesn't involve many of the skills used in playing world-class baseball, but something in Machado's comportment at that moment seemed to speak to his growing success. Playing, he shows a mix of smarts and ready toughness—a clean nab of a tricky hop leads to a four-seamer blazing across the diamond; a sharp batting eye lets him take his heavy hacks only at the pitches he wants—that can also come in handy when the game tips extracurricular. Machado had responded to earlier brushbacks from Ventura with stares and chatter, but when that didn't work he was happy to do more.
"Do more" may as well be Machado's job description these days. The Orioles have their share of specialist types; the offense gets no small part of its juice from Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, big boring dudes who hit big boring home runs. The starting pitching is thin, if you want to be nice about it. Look at the roster and you can see an unfurling string of 7-4 losses, nights when one swing isn't enough to make up for the other team pinballing doubles all around the park.
All of this means that while Machado would be great anywhere, the circumstances in Baltimore make him essential. He resuscitates games when the Orioles' homer-and-strikeout bunch is inclined toward the latter, putting together at-bats far more responsible than those from players a half-decade his senior. He stops big innings by wrangling screamers down the line. His time filling in for Hardy at short was something of a taunt to fans who've wanted to see him there full-time, but while Machado is undoubtedly the best shortstop on the roster, there's something fitting about watching him at third, where his throws cross the whole swath of fair territory. He takes care of everything his team needs.
In the fifth inning of a game against the Dodgers last Tuesday in Los Angeles, with the score tied at one, Kenta Maeda threw Machado a curveball. Machado looked like he knew what the pitch was by the time it had traveled ten feet. While it went the remaining 50, he loaded up—knee rising, shoulders dipping—and waited. The actual swing was a formality. Machado met the pitch with a slick, violent swipe, and it rocketed over the left-field wall.
A tie had become a 4-1 lead, and for most players, that might be enough of a contribution for one evening. But in the next frame, L.A.'s Trayce Thompson hit a hard grounder down the line, and Machado gloved it on a diagonal run, let loose a throw from five feet into foul territory, and got Thompson by a step. Lacking as it did a dive or leap, it was one of those plays that puzzles more than overwhelms; the sheer distance involved says that it should have been tough, but the light pick and the sidearmed throw looked routine. It was a glint of low-grade impossibility, like watching someone simply turn a handle and push open a double-locked door. The 4-1 score, built and partially preserved by Machado, ended up holding.
This is what he does, now, more or less every game. Though the statistics impress, Manny Machado has outpaced his numbers. You get the best sense of him not by charting his output but by sensing his constant presence whenever Baltimore plays. He is one of those players that the game seems to have selected as a nexus, the central pivot of all the action. He has some off nights, but never absent ones. Machado is hard to celebrate in the particular because his particulars are hard to portion off. He'll do whatever he just did again next month, next week, tomorrow. It's on us to remember to notice.
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