With one out in the 13th inning of Thursday night’s ALDS Game 4, Orioles rookie Manny Machado stood at third base with Yankees star Alex Rodriguez — pupil and teacher, side by side with a game and a series on the line.
It was an improbable setting and an unlikely situation for the 20-year-old Machado.
After all, just about two years ago — before he was the third pick in the 2010 draft, before he was billed as the top infield prospect in baseball, and before he selflessly switched from shortstop to third base for the sake of his team — Machado was a standout at Brito Private School in Miami.
There, Machado idolized a fellow Miami product, Rodriguez, and reached out to the Yankees veteran and future Hall of Famer for advice and mentorship, dreaming that some day he could be the next A-Rod.
That day may come sooner than most expected.
Machado’s double to lead off that 13th inning — just the second Oriole to reach base in an eight-inning span — was the game’s defining moment, and his run moments later proved to be the difference in the Orioles’ 2-1 victory to force a decisive Game 5.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, was due up third in the bottom of the 13th, but never got the chance to make the impact Machado did. Yankees manager Joe Girardi pinch-hit for the three-time MVP for the second time in as many nights, putting the fate of the game in someone else’s hands again. Eric Chavez lined out to Machado to end the game.
Game 5 is Friday night in the Bronx, and may be the end of Machado’s feel-good rookie run. But either way, it’s become obvious Rodriguez no longer is the superstar he used to be, while Machado is developing into everything Rodriguez once was.
Without Machado, who made his big-league debut on Aug. 9 and hit seven homers and drove in 26 runs in 51 regular-season games, the Orioles likely wouldn’t be going for their first playoff series win in 15 years, and Machado’s teammates aren’t shy about giving him credit.
“I’m not sure he’s 20,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who drove Machado in with a 13th-inning double of his own, breaking a 0-for-15 streak by Baltimore hitters with runners in scoring position.
“I’ve said it before, he’s really aware of everything that’s going on our there and he seems really calm. He’s been great.”
Machado is just 2-for-14 in his first playoff series, but both hits — Thursday’s double, and a solo home run in Wednesday’s Game 3 loss — came at key junctures. More important, he’s been a stalwart defender, making outstanding plays like Thursday’s 12th-inning putout of Eduardo Nunez, on a nightly basis, with the poise of a player with twice his experience.
“That guy continues to amaze me,” said Baltimore reliever Darren O’Day, who threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 4. “You can’t say enough good things about him, and maybe the defensive plays kind of get lost a little bit.”
Perhaps the biggest and most meaningful Machado praise in the clubhouse comes from veteran designated hitter Jim Thome, who also made his big league debut at age 20 — in 1991, 10 months before Machado was even born.
“That’s the great thing of baseball, is you’ll always have young guys come up that make impacts in the game,” Thome said.
“As a veteran guy, it’s nice to see and be a part of that and watch a young guy with great poise, with great attitude and all that kind of rubs off. The game is a very humbling game, and when you do get moments like that, like he has, you want to cherish every moment.”
Seemingly the only player in Baltimore’s clubhouse not fawning over Machado is Machado himself. He brushed off the thought of taking over A-Rod’s legacy — “I’m not thinking about that, to be honest,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to win the game.
And he regularly speaks in the kind of seasoned platitudes that you’d expect out of a player like Rodriguez.
“The team, ever since I came up, we’ve been having fun every day,” Machado said. “Every day we go out there we’re just enjoying ourselves, and nobody said it, but everybody felt that nobody wanted to go home. … It’s postseason time; it’s crunch time. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
That’s not entirely true, though. It could get better. A win Friday night would advance the Orioles to the ALCS, where they’d meet the Detroit Tigers.
Baltimore likely will need everyone, Machado included, to have their best game of the series in order to make that dream a reality, but there’s an air of confidence in the O’s clubhouse that suggests it’s well within reach — and long overdue.
“All of us on this team have had some chances, and hopefully tomorrow (Friday) we keep giving ourselves those chances, and hopefully we can come through some more,” Hardy said. “I think this team’s good at not looking at the past.”
And with a guy like Machado coming through in the clutch and continuing to amaze, why would you?