Welcome back into our lives, Manny Machado.
Oh, we hadn't forgotten about you. First, we waited for you to recover from last year's knee injury suffered late in September. Then you got off to a slow start and we wondered when you were going to start hitting. Then you had that ugly and weird shouting match and bat-throwing incident with the Oakland A's and you were headline news for several days.
But we're willing to forgive and forget. You're just a kid, turned 22 earlier this month. You were going through the first extended period of struggling in your baseball life; something tells me you weren't striking out too often against wicked sliders and nasty splitters back in Little League. You let your immaturity and frustration get the best of you. We understand that, not that we condone your actions.
I'm just speculating here, but maybe you grew up a little after your suspension. Realized that baseball is a game that can't always be played on emotion, that every day is a new day. It's a game of calculation and consistency, a chess match every plate appearance. The best players somehow manage to remain focused game after game, and that's one of the toughest things for young players to do. Lose focus, and you're not just missing sliders and splitters but fastballs down the middle.
On Tuesday night, you showed us that you're learning to make adjustments at the plate. Big game against the Los Angeles Angels, maybe the second-best team in the majors, a chance to make a little statement against a quality opponent, the kind of team the Baltimore Orioles will have to beat in the postseason if you hold on to the AL East lead. We know your club is starting to feel the hot breath of the surging Tampa Bay Rays -- you fear them more than the Toronto Blue Jays or New York Yankees, you can admit that. (OK, you should fear them more than Blue Jays or Yankees.) They had already won earlier in the night when you stepped up in the bottom of the 12th inning; they could move to six games back if the O's lost.
You're facing a right-handed reliever named Cory Rasmus. He'd pitched the 11th inning, threw a lot of sliders and curveballs; he's not a guy who's going to challenge you too often with a fastball. He threw you three sliders to start your at-bat, a ball and two called strikes. In your postgame interview on the field you said he'd been throwing a lot of breaking balls and expected him to come back with another.
He threw a 76-mph curve, and you crushed it to left field. It wasn't a bad pitch -- caught too much of the plate though it was down in the zone -- but it's the kind of pitch you haven't been missing lately. Since coming off your suspension on July 5, you're hitting .373/.397/.644, with four doubles, four home runs and 10 RBIs in 15 games.
Maybe it's just a little hot streak. Maybe you're finally getting in a groove, with the knee healthy. Maybe we're going to see the Manny Machado we saw the first half of last season, when you were hitting all those doubles, making all those fantastic plays in the field and making the All-Star team in your first full season in the majors.
At the All-Star break, I predicted the Orioles to hold on and win the East, in part because I figured Chris Davis was due to heat up. But it's not looking like Davis is the guy who will help carry the lineup alongside Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones. It's you, Manny.
I wrote about the Rays earlier tonight. I do think they're going to make this race interesting. But tonight, Manny, I'm still picking your club to win the East.