All of that freshening joy burst loose on Wednesday night thanks to the 20-year-old catalyst who has sparked the Birds on their recent 25-11 run. In the top of the ninth inning, tied 2-2 with Tampa Bay, Manny Machado, a converted shortstop with a month’s experience at third base, charged a swinging bunt with two outs and pinch runner Rich Thompson racing from second to third base. Machado barehanded the ball, faked a hard underhand throw to first, then spun to flip to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who’d snuck behind Thompson, trapping him off third to end the threat as the crowd of 26,076 roared.
Machado then led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, went to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored the walk-off run in a 3-2 win on a blast into the right field corner by Nate McLouth, the man who has taken over as emergency leadoff man since Nick Markakis broke his thumb on Sunday. Nothing unusual: a savvy, spontaneous play by a teenager, good fundamentals and a winning hit by an adrift free agent picked up in June.
Add a strong six-inning start by Miguel Gonzalez, grabbed gratis from the Mexican League, and the usual scoreless relief of Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson, and you have the miraculous Birds all bundled up in one game. “Kind of convenient,” Manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s us.”
Many deserve credit, but Machado is an inevitable magnet. “Nothing went through my head. I faked [the throw] and we had him,” he said. “Things that you never plan or practice just come out. I’ve never had that play, even when I was a shortstop. And J.J. read it. Most shortstops would still be standing at short.”
These are magic moments again in Baltimore. Don’t be quick to think they’ll end.
“Baseball has ‘best days,’ ” Showalter reflected before the game. “I love the early morning before the first workout of spring training. The sun’s just coming up and the steam is rising off the grass. And the off day before opening day, when everything is still ‘best case,’ is outstanding.
“But the other one, the best one, is the workout day before postseason. In ’95, I was standing by the cage and George [Steinbrenner] came over and just put his arm around my shoulder, stood there and didn’t say anything. The coffee tastes good that time of year.”
Showalter longs for that workout day early in October, the one before the Orioles’ first playoff game in so long. “They say the season is a marathon and September is a sprint,” he said. “That feels backwards. It seems like the season flies past but September just inches along. Every game means so much it feels like a marathon.”