Orioles keep finding ways to surprise

Rich Thompson is a 33-year-old rookie. He had one at-bat with the Kansas City Royals in 2004 — a double-play grounder — and toiled in the minors for eight more seasons before returning to the big leagues this month with the Tampa Bay Rays. In short, he’s straight out of central casting for the Dan Johnson-style hero who has enjoyed fairytale star turns for the franchise since 2008.

Thompson’s moment arrived in the ninth inning Wednesday night, with the Rays and Baltimore Orioles tied 2-2. His livelihood is speed, and he entered as a pinch-runner after Jeff Keppinger singled with one out.

Thompson was in the game to steal second base, and Baltimore manager Buck Showalter called a pitchout at precisely the right time — a 1-2 count on Evan Longoria. Thompson, though, had a great jump and slid in safely. Actually, let’s amend that: Tim Timmons called him safe. He looked out. But that’s Joe Maddon baseball in September, right? Take risks. Catch breaks. Win games.

Sure enough, Longoria — last year’s Game 162 idol — dribbled an infield single toward Manny Machado, the Orioles’ 20-year-old third baseman. Machado is the majors’ third-youngest player. A natural shortstop, Machado played a grand total of two minor league games at third base before debuting with the Orioles on Aug. 9.

At a moment so big, on a roller so slow, he was liable to make an awkward barehand grab and throw the ball away. Thompson would scamper home with the go-ahead run, Fernando Rodney would nail down the save, the Rays would resume their usual September surge, and …

That did not happen.

Instead, Machado plucked the ball from the grass and faked the throw to first — baseball’s answer to the Statue of Liberty play. Machado spun and fired a strike to sneaky shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was standing at third base. Thompson didn’t see or hear the warning of third-base coach Tom Foley until it was too late. He was toast. The rundown was quick, the roar was earsplitting, and the kid’s audacity was breathtaking.

The 20-year-old rookie had hoodwinked the 33-year-old rookie — just as the Orioles are stealing the American League East underdog magic that has become the Rays’ calling card.

“One of those plays you’ll never forget,” Thompson said later. “It’s never happened to me before.”

After victimizing the mighty Yankees and Red Sox with similar hijinks in recent years, the Rays had to know what would happen next. The crowd of 26,076 — more orange and black than Halloween night — exhorted Machado with a thunderous ovation as he led off the bottom of the ninth. Of course, he punched a single to left. Two batters later, Nate McLouth — whose career barely had a heartbeat three months ago — caromed a line drive off the wall in right field, not more than a couple feet fair. It bounced high over the head of Rays right fielder Matt Joyce, who didn’t even touch the ball as Machado raced across home plate.

As a delirious mob of Orioles descended upon McLouth after the 3-2 win — brawny teammate Chris Davis picked him up and carried him around the infield — the ball rolled to a stop on the right-field lawn. Joyce jogged over and picked it up. On his way to the visiting dugout, Joyce flipped it to Hardy, who seemed a little surprised.

“Just out of respect,” Joyce explained. “It’s never fun losing a game like that. … Guys like to have those balls as a keepsake. I don’t know. I just kind of left it up to them.

“It was a great baseball game. It didn’t go our way. It’s hard to accept, especially with the way things are in the standings. [The Rays now trail the Orioles and Yankees by three games in the AL East.] We’re used to coming in here and dominating and winning. Now, it’s a lot harder than it used to be.”

It wasn’t a surprise to see Joyce, a good and genuine man, act so graciously mere seconds after defeat. But the gesture held more significance than merely making sure McLouth walked away with a souvenir. Joyce — along with others in the Rays clubhouse — see a lot of themselves in the Orioles, who are a flabbergasting 26-7 in one-run games. The Rays weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in 2008, 2010 or 2011. They did. Now that a heavyweight starting rotation has made Tampa Bay a popular pick to win the division, it’s Baltimore’s turn to surprise.

“That’s the atmosphere we’ve created with the Rays, and it kind of seems to, I guess, change sides over to Baltimore maybe for this year,” Joyce said. “I know they’ve had a lot of walkoffs and a lot of success. But there’s still a lot of baseball be played. (Thursday) is pretty much a must-win for us.”

Last September, a different AL East team came to Camden Yards and faced “must-win” pressure: the Red Sox. The Orioles, sputtering toward their 14th consecutive losing season, found relevance in their power to ruin Boston’s year — and, it turned out, much more than that.

The Rays, the primary beneficiary when the Red Sox collapsed, were huge Orioles fans at this time last year.

“I know,” Joyce said, with a rueful grin. “Actually, I thought about that before. The way they ended the season, they carried it into 2012.”

Now the Orioles are making memories of their own, and Machado’s maneuver is at or near the top of the list. Maddon refused to characterize the play as a baserunning mistake by Thompson. “He’s got to do what he did,” Maddon insisted. “If that ball’s released at all, he keeps going, Longo is safe, he’s safe at home, it’s a great play. Their third baseman made a better play.”

Rays batting coach Derek Shelton could think of only two other third basemen with the nerve, dexterity and grace to pull it off: Longoria and defensive prodigy Adrian Beltre.

“And,” Shelton added, shaking his head, “this kid’s been in the big leagues for a month.”

Imagine the iconic Derek Jeter flip play from the 2001 playoffs — pulled off by a rookie. That’s what Machado did Wednesday night. In that moment, September baseball at Camden Yards was exhilarating, unexpected, inexplicable and carefree … the way it always used to be for the Rays.