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Manny Machado's big night

12/26/2012 - MLB Manny Machado Baltimore Orioles + more

WHEN LEGENDARY PLAYERS trot off the diamond for the last time, the stadium plays its farewell music, and fans give their final ovations. The world knows it is saying goodbye.

Hellos aren't usually as obvious. But on Sept. 12, Manny Machado made a play at Camden Yards that emphatically announced an arrival like no other.

The Orioles were tied for first with the Yankees in the AL East. That in itself was amazing: The O's hadn't posted a winning record since 1997, yet here they were in mid-September, at home against the Rays, playing for a playoff spot. With two outs in the ninth and a 2-2 score, Tampa pinch-runner Rich Thompson stole second. And Evan Longoria, the Rays' best player, stepped back into the box.

A base hit now would break the tie. Longoria worked the count full against Baltimore's Jim Johnson. The closer's payoff pitch was off-speed, and it fooled Longoria. He rolled his bat over it, chopping the ball softly down the third base line.

Machado sprinted toward it.

Machado had good instincts at third despite playing the position for only a month. Baltimore had needed the 20-year-old's glove (the O's were among the worst teams defensively in the league), but with 2012 Gold Glove winner J.J. Hardy firmly entrenched at Machado's shortstop position, the Orioles decided to try him at third. He had played the hot corner only three instances in his life: two games that summer in Double-A and one game as a 13-year-old. When he got the call to join Baltimore, Machado took a deep breath, reached for his phone and texted Alex Rodriguez, the one guy he thought could help. "I was like: Uh, Al. What do I do?" recalls Machado.

Machado and Rodriguez have a lot in common. They played their prep ball in Miami, were drafted at age 17 (Rodriguez first overall in 1993; Machado third overall in 2010) and debuted in the pros at a lanky 6'3" with bats that promised a world of pop once they filled out. Machado wears No. 13 as an homage to Rodriguez; A-Rod has been generous with his time, inviting the kid to work out with him in the offseason and paying for dinner.

When he received Machado's SOS texts back in August, Rodriguez reassured him he would be all right. But as Machado charged Longoria's squibber, a good result seemed impossible. Longoria was racing toward first. Machado had no choice but to field the ball with his bare hand. It would be, at best, a bang-bang play. "He already understands internal clocks," says Cal Ripken, the defining Orioles shortstop. "He knows how long it'll take him to execute a play compared to how fast a runner is. Manny understands angles and positioning. He's way better than I was at his age."

The pickup was clean, and as Thompson rounded third, Machado cocked his arm. He knew that an errant throw would toss away the game and first place: The Yankees were about to beat Boston and move up in the win column. He also saw that Longoria was nearly to first. In other words, a lot of calculus was going on. "I didn't want runners at first and third," he says, "so I decided to try something and see what happened."

He fired.

Thompson saw the motion and looked over to first, seemingly trying to track the ball's trajectory. But there was no ball. The crowd gasped in unison, and now Machado whirled, dancing backward toward home plate, facing the runner. Somehow he was still in possession of the ball.

As the stadium howled, everything became clear. He had pump-faked everyone and was now in control. He chucked the ball to Hardy. Thompson, caught in a pickle between the shortstop and Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, tried for home. Wieters tagged him. The inning was over. "It was the best play of my life," says Machado.

"It was the moment I knew, 'Wow, this kid's a star,'?" says Orioles GM Dan Duquette. Adds Ripken: "Even with all his physical gifts, Manny's greatest asset might be his mind."

The play itself, that pump fake, will live on YouTube forever, and Machado became a Baltimore folk hero that night. O's fans had seen 14 years of losing teams, an era in which the division rival Yankees had won the World Series four times, the Red Sox had won it twice and even the once-lowly Rays had advanced to the World Series in 2008. With one play -- with a game and arguably a season in the balance -- Machado had emphatically argued against the fatalistic thinking that permeated the worst stretch of the club's 112-year history.

Machado wasn't done, though. He stepped into the batter's box to lead off the bottom of the ninth, dug in and glared at Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth. "He's calm in the batter's box for a rookie," says Duquette. "He's confident and can hit the ball where it's pitched."

Machado drove the first pitch from Farnsworth to left for a single. He advanced to second on Robert Andino's sacrifice bunt down the first
base line. Nate McLouth stepped in next and took the first pitch for a ball. With the crowd on its feet, McLouth hit a rocket down the rightfield line that banged off the wall, fair by an eyelash. Six minutes after the play at third, his right fist raised toward the sky, Machado crossed home plate with the winning run, then sprinted into a mob around McLouth and joyfully wrestled with him.

Four days later, Baltimore secured its first winning record since 1997. Two weeks after that, the Orioles advanced to the postseason for the
first time in 15 years. And next? Well, even the once laughable proposition of a World Series title seems possible with Machado helping to anchor the young team. Though he finished at .262, he had 26 RBIs in 51 games. "Manny's got a chance to hit .300 with 25 or 30 home runs and 100 RBIs every year," says Ripken. "He's going to be a superstar."

To Baltimore fans, he already is.

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