BALTIMORE – In a clubhouse that plays like the most amazing thing is happening in an amazing time of year, where a bounding Ping-Pong ball is as likely to rattle one's skull as a crackling laugh, the heavy-lidded kid is spread over a folding chair like an afghan.
The pennant race comes through nightly now, and the Baltimore Orioles amount to more than a temporary impediment for the first time in 15 years. The ballpark gets full and loud, the nights get tense, the baseball world leans a little closer …
"And he doesn't care," Adam Jones said with a nod to the heavy-lidded kid across the room.
Manny Machado turned 20 two months ago, debuted in the big leagues out of Double-A a month later, and has been the Orioles' regular third baseman since. In the summer of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, where if you're old enough to 'stache you're old enough to mash, Machado has been an able defender, a developing – if impatient – presence deep in the lineup, and an old soul on his chair.
Among the many reasons the Orioles won't let the Yankees alone, Machado makes about every play at third (he was raised and groomed as a shortstop) and on Wednesday afternoon was batting .325 through 40 September at-bats.
A Miami native who's hit in a batting cage with Alex Rodriguez (and wears A-Rod's No. 13), a prospect who has barbecued in spring training with Jones, he arrived without Harper's hype and toils without Trout's production. His path is perhaps more typical of prodigies past, at a time they're otherwise arriving wrapped in muscle and worldliness. When Harper and Trout were becoming the darlings of the All-Star game in Kansas City, Machado was in the Futures game. Turned out, his was only a few weeks away.
Machado is 6-foot-3, perhaps 185 pounds. He was drafted two Junes ago, two places behind Harper and ahead of Matt Harvey, Yasmani Grandal and Chris Sale. He carries himself with a cool and smooth elegance, as though he'd never expected to be anywhere else in his 21st summer but on a big-league ball field, pulling his share of the Orioles, and kicking clubhouse Ping-Pong balls back into play.
"I just see it as a game I've played my whole life," Machado said. "I've messed up in the past and learned from it. These guys" – and he gestured across the room – "they've told me to have fun. That it's the same game. To relax. It's good to know that no matter what happens they're not going to be disappointed in me."
His whole life, of course, began shortly before the Orioles went bad and stayed bad, and it begins anew with the Orioles becoming about the coolest dude in the joint.
"It's a lot better than there being big boxes in here," Jones said of the usual vibe in the place, when everyone's thinking of packing up and going home. "There's still a lot to go, but this is pretty good."
Five hours later, the Orioles would celebrate their 80th win. Over 3½ hours they'd played the Tampa Bay Rays to a 2-2 draw. The young man whose name the crowd chants for each at-bat, whose education at third base comes a ground ball at a time, won the final five minutes. And so the Orioles won their 26th one-run game (against seven losses), remained tied with the Yankees atop the AL East, pushed the Rays back a game, and celebrated with a shaving cream facial to the kid who might not need it more than three or four times a week.
"He's not 20," Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy deadpanned.
"I'm 20," Machado insisted. "'92."
See, with two out in the top of the ninth and pinch-runner Rich Thompson at second base, Evan Longoria's full swing produced a dying ground ball toward third, and Machado set out to win this game. As Longoria's imperfect hamstring carried him slowly toward first, Machado gathered the baseball and deked a throw across the diamond.
"I had no chance," Machado said.
He spun back toward third and discovered Hardy had the exact same thought. Expecting Machado would fire to first, Thompson rounded third base aggressively.
"Manny outsmarted him, I guess," Hardy said.
Machado threw to Hardy.
"Most shortstops," Machado said, "would have still been at shortstop."
Thompson was out in a rundown. Machado and the rest of the Orioles charged from the field.
"He's just really, really aware of everything going on around him," Hardy said.
Machado lined the first pitch of the ninth inning for a single into left field, was bunted to second and scored on Nate McLouth's hard single down the right-field line.
These are the new Camden Yard moments. They are a dog pile at second base, Machado in the middle of it, McLouth being carried from the field, the crowd lifting them all. They are who they are now, what their record says, because Miguel Gonzalez pitched them to the seventh and the bullpen made it stick and somebody showed up just in time to send everyone home thinking October. For a night, at the end, it was the kid who figured he'd finish the year in Double-A Bowie, but instead will stand with the rest of them and see how it goes for as long as it goes.
"He ain't getting a day off," Jones said. "He's 20."
Yes, amazing things keep happening here, where for so long dreary happened, and hopelessness happened. Hell, nothing happened.
Then, for five minutes, everything does.
"It doesn't get better," Machado said. "It doesn't get better."
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