ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Kelly Johnson lined a pitch from Orioles reliever Darren O’Day into right field yesterday leading off the bottom of the eighth inning. I lowered my head to mark a single on my score sheet until realizing that someone had snatched the ball, tapped his glove once and fired a throw to first base to record the out.
Second baseman Brian Roberts wasn’t playing Johnson deep and right fielder Nick Markakis wasn’t playing him shallow.
That was third baseman Manny Machado.
Manager Buck Showalter worked on an exaggerated shift during exhibition games, and he broke it out yesterday on opening day at Tropicana Field. Machado moved all the way across the diamond and into shallow right against Johnson and Matt Joyce.
I wonder how this impacts Machado’s range factor? Did Showalter run this past Bill James?
Machado had only one play during the shift, and it came on Johnson’s ball. He retired the Rays’ designated hitter by half a step. Back in the second inning, shortstop J.J. Hardy had to run a mile to track down Joyce’s pop up in foul territory.
“It worked pretty good,” said first baseman Chris Davis, who received Machado’s throw. “I saw a little glove pat that made it a little closer, but Manny’s got a great arm. He’s got a lot of range.
“It’s good for us. They’ve done it to us. Toronto’s done it to us. It’s kind of nice to be on the other side of it.”
Davis bunted for a hit against a shift late in the exhibition schedule, something he worked on during the first intrasquad game. The man can relate.
Showalter checked with reporters yesterday to find out how the Rays scored Johnson’s out in the press box. It went down as 5-3. Doesn’t matter where Machado fielded the ball. It’s third baseman to first baseman. They got it right.
“It’s pretty nice,” Machado said. “The run out there is not so good, but it definitely helps out the defense and it’s definitely going to help out the pitchers even more. And it went pretty good today.
“It’s different because the pitcher’s further out and it’s a different angle. It’s definitely different out there for me, but I go out there with Bobby D. (Dickerson) and try to work on it before the games, and some throws, because it’s a different angle for me from over there.”
Machado was challenged by Johnson’s line drive, unsure whether to charge the ball or play it on the hop.
“I decided to stay back and make sure of the out,” he said. “Once I caught it, I was like, ‘Oh man, he’s running hard to the base,’ and I really had to let go of it.”
Machado batted second yesterday for the first time, and he worked David Price for seven pitches in the top of the first inning before grounding out.
“I went up not trying to do too much, my first AB of the year,” he said. “Just keep it nice and simple.”
Machado later singled and walked in the Orioles’ 7-4 victory. He may drop down in the order tonight against Tampa Bay right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.
One possibility is having Nate McLouth bat second behind Nick Markakis. Or perhaps Machado stays exactly where he was against Price.
I never imagined him playing third base until last August, or shallow right field until this spring. I won’t make any assumptions about him now.