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The play, the pump-fake and the legend of Manny Machado

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

BALTIMORE -- Some day, we'll be telling the story of what we saw Wednesday night.

We'll be telling it in October, if the Orioles complete this crazy season with a run through the playoffs. We'll be telling it in 20 years, if Manny Machado takes his career where it seems destined to go.

But trust me, we'll be telling it. You'll be telling it, and the Orioles will be telling it, because if there's going to be a legend of Manny Machado, Wednesday night helped launch it.

The kid did what?

Here's what: With the go-ahead run on second base and two out in the ninth inning of a tie game in a tied American League East race, he raced in from third base to field Evan Longoria's slow roller. He thought about throwing to first, where he might or might not have been able to get the still-hobbled Longoria.

Instead, he pump-faked. He pump-faked and wheeled to throw to third base, threw to shortstop J.J. Hardy and caught pinch-runner Rich Thompson off the bag to end the inning.

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Oh yeah, and then he singled to start the bottom of the ninth, and scored the run that gave the Orioles their 3-2 win over the Rays and kept them in a first-place tie with the Yankees.

Oh, and he's 20 years old, just three months older than Bryce Harper, 11 months younger than Mike Trout. Oh, and he had played just two games at third base before the Orioles called him up last month and made him a third baseman.

"I just wanted to play in the big leagues," he said. "If it would have been catching or playing the outfield, I'd have tried to do the job."

You know what? After Wednesday, I wouldn't put it past him.

After Wednesday, I'm not sure I'd put anything past him.

His numbers with the Orioles aren't yet stunningly good. He's a .272 hitter with a .756 OPS, with four home runs and 14 RBI in 31 games.

But he has taken to third base better than anyone with the Orioles could have imagined (and they thought he'd be good). He has taken to the big leagues with a steadiness that makes you wonder whether the Orioles would be in first place by themselves if they'd only called Machado up sooner.

Funny, people have been saying the same thing about the Angels and Mike Trout.

The Orioles were already a good team when Machado arrived from Double-A Bowie back on Aug. 9. They've been a 20-11 team (a 105-win pace over 162 games) with him in the lineup.

"He's a huge part of it," Hardy said.

His presence at third has helped change the look of an Orioles defense that was an issue before he arrived. He makes the plays he's expected to, and he makes others, too.

The one Wednesday was one of the others.

"Awesome," said closer Jim Johnson, who pitched the ninth. "You have to have a feel for it to do that. Obviously, the fact that he's only been playing third base for three days makes it even more amazing.

"Awesome."

Maybe we use the word "natural" too often in describing these kids who are doing great things in the big leagues at age 19 or 20. Maybe we do, but it felt right when Machado himself kept using it to describe the play.

No, he insisted, he had never done this before. No, he said, he hadn't thought it out ahead of time, hadn't be taught it.

"It's just natural," he said. "It just came up. It just came out naturally. Nothing went through my head. I just did the pump-fake. I don't know from where."

That's something Harper might have said, something that some people misinterpret as being too cocky. But if you heard the tone of Machado's voice, you wouldn't read it that way.

He said it all so . . . well, so naturally.

"Never -- I've never pump-faked," he said. "It's one thing about having good instincts. Things come out that you don't practice."

In some ways, Machado's story fits right into this crazy Orioles season, right alongside Nate McLouth's story and Miguel Gonzalez's story. It was McLouth (released after hitting .140 with the Pirates, a .244 hitter at Triple-A Norfolk, now hitting .279 in 35 games with the Orioles) who got Wednesday's game-winning hit.

It was Gonzalez, signed as a minor-league free agent out of the Mexican winter league, who has six wins and pitched six strong innings to give the Orioles a chance Wednesday. That's Gonzalez, who became an Oriole because general manager Dan Duquette hired old friend Fred Ferreira, a few weeks after Ferreira had happened to watch Gonzalez pitch.

"I think he can help," Ferreira said.

Machado isn't anything like them. We knew about Machado all along, knew that he was one of baseball's best prospects.

We just didn't know that he'd be pump-faking the Orioles to a key September win -- as a 20-year-old shortstop playing third base -- to keep them tied with the Yankees with exactly 20 games to play.

We didn't know he was baseball's latest natural.

 
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