No, the best move of the season was also the gutsiest move the season: On Aug. 9, the Orioles recalled Manny Machado from Double-A. Sure, he was their top prospect and one of the top prospects in the game, but consider the factors at the time:
He was a kid who had just turned 20 years old and had barely 200 games of professional experience.
His numbers at Bowie were solid, but he was hardly tearing up the Eastern League: .266/.352/.438.
He was a shortstop but the Orioles were calling him up to play third base.
In this age of cost containment, teams often hold back prospects to delay their major league service time.
The Orioles were doing fine, tied for the AL wild-card lead.
The Orioles weighed all that and called him up. Give credit to general manager Dan Duquette for having the audacity to make the move, and to the Orioles' player development people for believing Machado was ready for the majors.
Most of all, give credit to Machado. The kid is good.
His home run in the seventh inning on a loud Saturday night at a sold-out Camden Yards might have been the biggest of the season for the Orioles -- a low screaming liner that looked like it was headed straight to Red Sox left fielder Scott Podsednik but somehow kept carrying and carrying just over that low, 7-foot wall. It gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead, a margin they would hold on to. Of course they would; these are the Orioles and no team in history has ever compiled a better winning percentage in one-run games.
More importantly, it carried the Orioles into a first-place tie with the Yankees, who had lost earlier in the day. There are four games left in the regular season and the Orioles are tied for first place. Say that again.
Since Machado's recall, the Orioles have gone 31-16. He's started all 47 of those games. They called up him up because they needed someone to handle the position defensively; Wilson Betemit had played the position about as well as a toilet plunger. Machado's glove has been excellent, especially for a kid who played all of two games there in the minors -- he's averaged 2.8 assists + putouts per nine innings compared to the 2.15 of the Orioles' third basemen, and has made just four errors in those 47 games. The other five guys who played there committed 24 errors. He's made outstanding plays like the sweet double play he started on Saturday, or this one that shows off his arm strength, and this heads-up play, one of my favorites of the season.
Machado's bat, however, has been a bigger surprise. His Double-A numbers indicated there would be a likely adjustment period, but his home run on Saturday lifted his line to an acceptable .276/.302/.470. He's no longer hitting ninth in the order.
Interviewed on the field after the game, Machado sounded like a poised veteran who had been through many pennant race wars: "The fans were great," he told MLB Network. "The atmosphere was awesome. It felt like October baseball. It's great that the fans are into the game as much as we are."
It felt like October baseball because the Yankees lost 3-2 to the Blue Jays earlier in the day.
That game turned on three small plays: The tying run scored with two outs in the fifth when Alex Rodriguez decided to make a play on Rajai Davis' chopper down the third-base line that would have gone foul if Rodriguez had let it go. Davis beat out his throw to first. In the sixth with a runner at first, Yan Gomes reached on a bunt single to first base; Nick Swisher turned to make a throw to first, but Robinson Cano wasn't there. (He was in double play depth up the middle, so not really in position to get there in time. Give credit to Gomes for the surprise bunt.) That led to Adeiny Hechavarria's go-ahead double. In the seventh, Aaron Loup replaced Shawn Hill and picked Ichiro Suzuki off first base.
The Orioles and Yankees haven't been separated by more than 1.5 games since Sept. 2, but it wasn't always that way. Back on July 18, the Yankees led the division by 10 games. It's not getting much recognition, but the Yankees are facing a pretty epic collapse if they don't win the division.
"(Sunday) is going to be a must-win," Swisher said after the loss. "We put ourselves in this situation, our destiny is in our own hands and we've got to go out and take it. No one is going to give us anything."
Of course, the Yankees can still make the playoffs via the wild card (their magic number for clinching a wild-card spot is one). But the new format was instituted for a reason: Teams want to avoid the wild-card game and win the division. If the Orioles and Yankees do tie for the division title, an American League East tiebreaker will take place Thursday at Camden Yards.
And if Orioles do win the division, it means they have a chance to join this list: Only eight teams have ever won a World Series while overcoming a deficit of at least 10 games -- the 1911 A's, 1914 Braves, 1942 Cardinals, 1964 Cardinals, 1969 Mets, 1978 Yankees, 2003 Marlins (wild card) and 2011 Cardinals (wild card).
If that happens, I'm pretty sure a 20-year-old rookie will be making some big plays during October baseball.
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