The AL East's status right now should be something along the lines of "none too thrilled," for it looks like the first-place Baltimore Orioles have made a major acquisition.
And they did it without even picking up the phone. All they had to do was get the good Manny Machado back.
Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy provided the key muscle for the Orioles on Monday night against the Washington Nationals, hitting back-to-back homers in the top of the 11th to push the O's toward an 8-2 victory. Their heroics aside, however, Baltimore's big-hitting star at Nationals Park was its 22-year-old (by a day) third baseman.
Machado began with three hits in his first three at-bats against Nationals fireballer Stephen Strasburg, and then added two more hits in extras. The finale for the day was a two-run homer off Aaron Barrett that capped Baltimore's six-run 11th-inning rally.
There's usually a bit of history to discuss in times like this. Sure enough, here's ESPN Stats & Info with what Machado was able to accomplish Monday night:
22-year-old Manny Machado is the youngest Orioles player to get 5 hits in a game since Cal Ripken Jr. had 5 at age 21 in 1982— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 8, 2014
Of Machado's five hits, my personal favorite was the fourth. It involved him taking a pitch that was ticketed for the dirt and golfing it into left field for a single. That's the kind of hit you get only when you're hot.
And Machado is nothing if not hot.
After collecting five hits Monday night, Machado is now 9-for-17 (.529) in three games since returning from a (well-deserved) five-game suspension stemming from his antics against the Oakland A's last month. Look back even further through June 22, and Machado is 19-for-47 (.404) in his last 11 games.
In the process, he's raised his average from .224 to .261 and his OPS from .597 to .712. As such, his postgame comment about his bat "getting there" after a slow start is a bit of an understatement.
Small sample sizes and all, but we're past the point where we have to treat this hot stretch as the work of some upstart. Machado broke into the league in 2012 and has done this kind of thing before.
And therein lies what's so scary for the AL East: When Machado hits, he's one of the best players in baseball.
That's what Machado proved in the first half of 2013, when he started strong to the tune of a .310 average, an .807 OPS and a league-leading 39 doubles.
According to FanGraphs, here's where he ranked among qualified position players in wins above replacement:
Yup. Top five. Or "arguably" top five if you want to take his tie with David Wright into account. Either way, pretty impressive stuff.
Machado's bat was a big part of the equation. The other big part is what he was doing with his glove, as even Andrelton Simmons wasn't Machado's equal in terms of defensive value in the first half of 2013.
And just as Machado has shown that his bat still has plenty of life in it, he's shown that his glove is still dandy as well.
He made not one, but two fine defensive plays at the hot corner against the Nationals on Monday, and we're just a couple of days removed from Machado's defense playing a starring role on national television Saturday night at Fenway Park:
Though he's logged significantly less time than the players around him, you can still look at the defensive leaderboards at FanGraphs and find Machado tied for fourth among third basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved.
The numbers, therefore, are still syncing up with the eye test: Machado is amazing.
As for what the Orioles can do with a version of Machado who's amazing at third and plenty good at the plate, they're not being secretive about it. In the 11 games he's been hot, the Orioles are 7-4 (.636).
This is nothing new, mind you. The Orioles went 33-18 with Machado in the lineup after they called him up late in 2012, and then 53-43 when he was at his best in the first half of 2013.
When Machado's good, the Orioles are good. That's obviously simplifying things a bit, but it's not too much of a stretch as far as correlation and causation go. Great players do tend to help their teams win games, and Machado is certainly a great player when he's right.
Goodness knows these are things that the other teams in the AL East don't want to think about. Specifically, the two teams that are trying to catch the 49-40 Orioles in the standings: the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees.
The Blue Jays (47-43 as of publication) are already reeling, entering the week with losses in 19 of their last 28 games. And where it looks like the Orioles are welcoming back their best player, the Blue Jays just put arguably their own best player on the shelf. Slugging first baseman Edwin Encarnacion could be out as long as a month with a leg injury.
The Yankees (45-43) aren't much better off in the injury department, as Ivan Nova has already been lost for the year and there's a chance Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia could be next. They've acquired Brandon McCarthy from the Arizona Diamondbacks to help pick up the slack, but their defense isn't much better than the defense that helped kill McCarthy's ERA in Arizona.
For now, Machado's return to superstar form is very much a welcome sight for the Orioles. But given what's going on in Toronto and New York, it could be much more than that in the long run.
It could be what allows the Orioles to run away with the AL East.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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