BALTIMORE — With Nick Markakis in the midst of his return to Baltimore, the Orioles trotted out their fourth different leadoff hitter in the last five games for Tuesday’s contest against the Atlanta Braves.
After manager Buck Showalter moved Manny Machado down to third over the weekend, the All-Star third baseman returned to the top spot, the place in the lineup he’s now occupied 73 times during the 2015 season. Of course, the thinking with moving Machado down in the order was to create more run-producing opportunities for the 23-year-old, but the lack of an ideal option to replace him in the top spot is the bigger long-term problem.
Jimmy Paredes, David Lough, and Nolan Reimold received opportunities in the top spot while Machado hit lower in the order. Showalter has used six different players in the leadoff spot this year with two of them — Alejandro De Aza and Everth Cabrera — no longer with the organization.
“If you hit Manny first, who hits third?” Showalter said on Monday. “If you hit him third, who hits first? You take one away and then you’re trying to replace it. We put out there what we think is best. Guys know that we’re having some challenges there.”
Despite Reimold going 2-for-4 with a double and a walk in the No. 1 spot in Monday’s 2-1 win, Machado struggled in the third spot in the order, going 2-for-15 with four strikeouts and a walk. One certainly shouldn’t draw strong or permanent conclusions from that sample size, but it might have been the level of anxiousness Machado displayed in two at-bats on Monday that reinforced the idea that maybe it’s unwise to mess with a good thing.
Machado came to the plate with two runners on base in the eighth and 10th innings of Monday’s game and struck out each time, swinging at several pitches outside the strike zone. One of the biggest factors in the young infielder’s leap at the plate this season has been his improved plate disciplined with a career-high 42 walks in 423 plate appearances entering Tuesday’s game.
Did the move to the No. 3 spot alter Machado’s mindset?
“I actually asked him about that today. ‘Do you feel any different mentality there? Are you getting bigger?'” Showalter said prior to Tuesday’s game. “He said, ‘No, it’s just a [slump].’ Since he’s been here — up until the last two or three games — that’s as long as I’ve seen him engaged with a good approach where he was not letting them get him out other than [on] stuff within the zone. He was walking.
“You always think it’s a day away. It’s like he said today, ‘I’ve got to get back to what I was doing. It’s got nothing to do with where I’m hitting him in the order.’ Of course, what’s he going to say?”
Machado looks the part of a hitter who will eventually settle into the No. 3 spot for a long time, but it would be wise to leave him in the role where he’s thrived in 2015, especially with few other options inspiring confidence in the leadoff spot right now.