No goal: Machado on Opening Day

SARASOTA, Fla. -- As he writhed in pain near the first-base bag in Tampa Bay last Sept. 23, there was no voice in Manny Machado’s head telling him everything was going to be fine.

“Oh, no. I thought I was done,” the best 21-year-old third baseman in baseball admitted Thursday. “My first thought was, 'There goes my career. There goes my knee. It’s going to be tough to come back from this.’”

But luckily for Machado, and luckily for the Baltimore Orioles, this wasn't The End for one of baseball’s brightest stars. Miraculously, his left ACL wasn't torn. Miraculously, this was “just” a tear of the medial patellofemoral ligament, which could be repaired arthroscopically instead of with major reconstructive surgery.

And even more miraculously, five months later, Machado is trotting around the Orioles’ spring training complex, taking batting practice and fielding ground balls. And he never would have thought that would be possible, either, he said.

Oh, he isn't running full speed yet. He isn't running the bases yet. There are still drills that either his medical staff or his manager won’t allow him to do.

But if you thought you heard a big whooshing sound in the south this week, that was just the folks who run the Orioles exhaling, now that they know that almost none of all the dark scenarios they feared last September is likely to happen.

One of these weeks, one of these months, Manny Machado will be back on his road to stardom. Just don’t mention that ever-popular expression, “Opening Day,” around the Orioles. Any of them.

Asked Thursday where starting on Opening Day ranks on his list of spring goals, Machado had a telling answer:

“Last,” he said. “That’s at the bottom of my list. It’s not even on my list, to be honest.”

And not surprisingly, that’s exactly what his manager wanted to hear.

“He’s certainly heard it enough from me, and from the doctors, I’m sure -- that when we get it, we want to get it right the first time,” Buck Showalter said. “My biggest goal with him this year is not to have any setbacks. I don’t want to have any setbacks this spring.

“And believe me, our infield coaches, our strength-and-conditioning guys and everybody, they've heard that a lot. I don’t want to hear about setbacks. And I don’t want to hear about him being ahead or behind schedule. You’ll never hear somebody say, 'This guy’s on schedule.' There is none. The schedule is what it is. When he’s there, he’s there. And he’s worth waiting on, to be right, because I don’t want him to have any doubt in his mind that he’s ready.”

So Machado’s most important date next month isn't March 31. It’s March 15, the day he’s scheduled to visit his surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, in California. And it won’t be until at least that point that he can resume full baseball activities.

It’s still possible, said Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations, that Machado could be cleared to play Opening Day. But until then, they’re all taking this day by day.

“When I’m ready, I’m going to be ready,” Machado said. “And everybody’s going to know it. And that’s when I’m going to be out there with the team, whether it’s Opening Day or sometime in April.”

In the meantime, Machado says he’s erased the “freak” play on which he got hurt, while simply turning first base, from the DVR in his mind.

“It’s gone,” he laughed. “I've got some new memories in there. Now I’m just trying to get back out there. That’s the most important one.”