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BALTIMORE — Manny Machado knew he was taking a major chance.
Tagging up from second base with two outs and the Orioles trailing the New York Yankees by a run in the bottom of the sixth inning Friday night seemed hardly worth the risk to only move up 90 feet with your cleanup hitter coming to the plate.
Conventional baseball wisdom screams that you never make the final out at third base, but sometimes you need to push the envelope against an ace like CC Sabathia, who hadn’t allowed a hit through the first five innings. Manager Buck Showalter said afterward that you can’t become “a prisoner to the book” in those rare moments as Machado followed his two-run double earlier in the inning with the aggressive decision to move up to third.
“It’s a do-or-die play. It’s something that Buck allows us to do — to play our game,” Machado said. “If you have a shot for it, go for it. I wanted to take the extra base.”
It was an eyebrow-raising decision that paid off as Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner made the catch flat-footed on J.J. Hardy’s fly ball to medium deep left-center and Machado slid into third ahead of the throw, moving 90 feet closer to home plate. Moments later, Adam Jones sent a dribbler down the first-base line for an infield single, allowing Machado to cross the plate with the tying run.
The 20-year-old wouldn’t have scored on the play had he not made the bold baserunning decision.
The good fortune was a case of preparation meeting opportunity as the Orioles tied the game and ultimately completed a 4-3 comeback win to open a three-game set and move a game ahead of the Yankees in the loss column for second place in the American League East.
Machado’s play was reminiscent of the countless times the Yankees would take advantage of a moment of weakness, with shortstop Derek Jeter headlining the list of players to do it against the Orioles time after time. Like clockwork, the underdog Orioles would work to build an early lead in many games prior to last year, only to see the Yankees chip away and ultimately surge ahead in the late innings for a demoralizing loss.
Of course, the Orioles have no reason to be intimidated by the Yankees these days as the division rivals are tied 15-15 since the start of the 2012 season, including the five games played in the American League Division Series last October. Friday night was the latest example of Baltimore turning the tables against an injury-plagued Yankees club.
“I tell guys all the time, if you feel something, you’ve got a good feel, go for it,” said Showalter about Machado’s tag-up. “I have the other part of it after it’s over, but I’m going to be upset if you feel something and don’t go for it. That’s the type of intelligent recklessness you have to have.”
Nate McLouth delivered the big blow an inning later as he homered over the right-field scoreboard to give the Orioles the lead for the first time all night. The game-winning homer brought back memories of last year’s ALDS Game 5 when he hit a potential game-tying drive off Sabathia in the sixth inning that was ruled foul despite the Orioles’ claims that it nicked the right-field foul pole at Yankee Stadium.
The left fielder wasn’t interested in revisiting that call but was asked whether he thought back to that moment last October as he was rounding first base.
“I wasn’t out of batter’s box before I thought that,” McLouth said. “Off the bat, I knew it had the distance. It stayed true, it stayed straight, and I was happy about that.”
The Orioles were also happy with the relief work of rookie Kevin Gausman, who followed T.J. McFarland’s rough start with 4 1/3 shutout innings to keep the early deficit at 3-0 and make the eventual comeback possible. The 22-year-old earned his first major league victory in the process.
Tommy Hunter followed Gausman’s effort with two dominating innings to earn his second career save as closer Jim Johnson received a second night off after working three consecutive games earlier in the week.
It wasn’t a dominating performance by any means, but the Orioles were just a little bit better — possibly as little as 90 extra feet in the case of Machado’s sixth-inning decision.
An early deficit, a critical play or two to orchestrate a comeback, and rock-solid bullpen work to seal the victory. The Yankees painfully showed them that sequence for so many years, reminding that it’s often the little things that lead to big wins.
But the Orioles quickly reminded everyone that even a victory over Sabathia is only as significant as the next day.
“It’s big to win against their No. 1 in the first game of the series,” Machado said, “but it’s a new game tomorrow.”