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Machado proving O's prescient with steady play

Machado proving O's prescient with steady play

Machado proving O's prescient with steady play
NEW YORK -- There are still nights -- OK, a lot of nights, admits Orioles rookie Manny Machado -- that he goes home after a game, lies in bed and can't fall asleep as reality starts to set in.

"It will be like one o'clock, and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm actually here,'" said Machado, who made his much buzzed-about Major League debut two months ago Tuesday. "I'm excited every day to come to the ballpark, just knowing that I'm in the big leagues and I'm in the postseason."

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The late-night exuberance is perhaps the only time the 20-year-old Machado acts his age.

The first Oriole position player to debut before 21 since Eugene Kingsale in 1996, Machado has become a mainstay in the O's starting lineup, holding his own offensively and bettering the club defensively at the corners with Mark Reynolds moving over to first base. Machado, who batted .375 (6-for-16) with a double, a triple, three homers and five runs scored in his first four games, has hit as high as sixth in the Orioles' batting order, and has gotten the green light to swing at 3-0 pitches, a trust factor established already with manager Buck Showalter that the rookie said gives him even more confidence at the plate.

Machado fits in remarkably well between the lines, joking that the only time he felt like a true rookie was when he donned a tutu on the streets of San Francisco last month, when he walked the streets in costume as part of the team's annual rookie dress-up.

"I remember coming up a week or two before my 21st birthday, and I was scared to death," said Hall of Famer and former Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., who had a chance to spend some time with Machado during this year's Futures Game.

"I had good success at the Triple-A level and I felt I might be ready, but that environment, you didn't know whether you had enough to play in the big leagues," Ripken said. "So it's amazing to me, young players in general, we had a lot of super-phenomenal talents in the big leagues this year, with Bryce Harper, Mike Trout. And Manny fits right in there. His talent, his ability to play the field in a new position that he hadn't played before, and not let that affect him. He's come through with some big hits. It's amazing to me how he has his composure."

Working as part of the TBS postseason broadcast crew, Ripken has had a front-row seat to watch Machado play third base in the playoffs -- a position the natural shortstop had moved over to with J.J. Hardy firmly entrenched at short -- and he said the most impressive thing about the 20-year-old has been his baseball mind.

"I was probing, saying, 'What were you working on in the Minor Leagues, what plays are your hardest plays at shortstop, what do you think your strengths are?'" Ripken said. "Just to hear him talk back, he really is old beyond his years in that respect."

Machado, who grew up with an Alex Rodriguez poster on his wall, is playing against the Yankees third baseman in the American League Division Series, and the pair work out together in the offseason.

"I mean it's funny, I came up idolizing Cal Ripken," said Rodriguez, who had a poster of the Iron Man on his wall. "Now he's over there in the same position Cal was at, so there's some irony there. And he's a great kid, he's a Miami kid and I wish him the best. Just not too much this series."

Machado, who would take early infield work at third base in Double-A, has been a quick study at his new position. When he makes a mistake, he doesn't just shake it off, he replays it in his head and commits to memory what went wrong. Talk to him about double plays, and he chides himself for rushing on an error in Boston, launching into a discussion about how to better determine timing. His errant throw against the Yankees earlier this season was the driving force behind a phenomenal pump-fake play against Tampa Bay that left those in attendance speechless and his teammates again with one question: How can Machado be only 20?

On that play, with the go-ahead run on second base and two out in the ninth inning of a tie game in a tied AL East race, Machado raced in to field Evan Longoria's slow roller. He thought about throwing to first, but wasn't sure if he would be able to get a still-hobbled Longoria. So he pump-faked, turned and threw to third base where shortstop Hardy caught pinch-runner Rich Thompson off the bag to end the inning. He then singled and scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the frame to top it off.

"You don't even think about how he's a new guy or how is he going to react to this," Ripken said. "It's just a foregone conclusion he already has. I think the month of September was really helpful for a lot of guys on the Orioles, including Manny. It was pressure all the way down to the end, a glimpse to playoff baseball before you got there."

When the Orioles called up Machado, they were panned around baseball for rushing one of the game's brightest young prospects to the big leagues. But the steadiness with which Machado has approached every facet of the game, including handling a swarm of reporters and sold-out crowds at Camden Yards chanting his name at every at-bat, has been impressive enough to now wonder -- what took Baltimore this long?

"In baseball, [a young player's] ability to play defense is what allows you to keep running them out there while they figure it out offensively," Showalter said. "And that was the one barometer we kept talking to our guys in the Minor Leagues about defensively, and they felt like he could do fine there, and they were right."

Machado is quick to point out there is much to improve on, lots left for him to learn. He will approach next spring fighting for a spot on the Orioles' Opening Day roster, because -- in his words -- he has to prove he can still play.

"I wouldn't say I fit in yet," Machado said. "I don't feel like a rookie a little bit, just since it's the playoffs and how the team has treated me. But once you realize I am still a rookie, it's my first year and I'm in the postseason? It's still kind of unbelievable."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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