By John Perrotto
The big smile on Manny Machado's face easily overrides his low batting average.
"I feel great," the Baltimore Orioles third baseman said with a smile. "I really couldn't ask to feel any better, and that's the important thing right now."
The .236 average Machado took into Wednesday night's game against the Pirates seemed like a minor trouble spot compared to how his outstanding 2013 season -- his first full year in the major leagues -- ended. On Sept. 23, while beating out an infield single against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, Machado stepped awkwardly on the bag and his left knee buckled. Machado suffered a complete tear of the patellofemoral ligament that required both arthroscopic and reconstructive surgery, and all but ensured he would not be ready to play at the start of this season.
"It was tough when I first got the news," said Machado, who always likes to say how he was born to play baseball. "Once I got over the initial shock, I was determined I was going to come back in time for Opening Day. I set the goal in my mind and I was going to do everything I could to rehab the injury and get back."
It didn't work out the way the 21-year-old Machado hoped. After playing in a handful of exhibition games and showing that he was clearly not moving well, Machado and Orioles manager Buck Showalter had a heart-to-heart talk in the dugout during the middle of a Grapefruit League game at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla. Showalter told Machado that playing on Opening Day was not realistic.
"It was disappointing, but I understood where Buck was coming from," Machado said. "I just wasn't ready to help the team. After I got over the disappointment, I realized that it was just a small setback."
Said Showalter, "There were a certain numbers of hurdles that Manny was going to have to go over on his way back, and our concern was he was going to try to go over all of them too fast. I hated to put the brakes on him, but it was clearly better for everyone."
Machado started the season on the disabled list and did not play in his first game until May 1. Though he had only one home run and two RBIs in 18 games prior to Wednesday, he did go 7-for-16 in a four-game series against the Royals in Kansas City that ended Sunday.
"He looked like the Manny we're used to seeing," Showalter said. "He's starting to move better in the field and look comfortable at the plate. I don't think anyone expected Manny to come back from an injury that serious, especially after missing a good chunk of spring training, and not show some rust. He's getting there and, believe me, he's worth the wait until he gets all the way back. I mean, you're talking about a third baseman who had about as historic of a season at this position as Chris Davis did for a first baseman."
Davis generated much of the Orioles' news last season when he hit a club-record 53 home runs and drove in 138 runs. However, Machado had a .283 batting average, an American League-leading 51 doubles, 14 homers and 71 RBIs in 156 games while also winning the AL Platinum Glove, awarded to the best defensive player in the league regardless of position.
While the offensive numbers were impressive, they did not shock Machado. He had the pedigree of being the third overall selection in the 2010 amateur draft from Brito Miami Private School, and he drew comparisons to fellow Miami native Alex Rodriguez as a teenager.
What thrilled Machado was the Platinum Glove, especially after making the conversion from shortstop to third baseman during the 2012 season. The Orioles had Machado play just two games at the hot corner at Double-A Bowie, then promoted him to the major leagues to continue the learn the position in the midst of a pennant race. He played well, batting .262 with seven homers in 51 games and helping the Orioles gain their postseason berth since 1996.
"I put in a lot of hard work to try to learn the position and become a good third baseman," Machado said. "I appreciate that so many people think so highly of what I do at third base."
Machado could be moving back to his natural position as soon as next season, though. Shortstop J.J. Hardy is eligible for free agency at the end of this season and he and the Orioles have not had any substantive talks about a potential contract extension.
"I love shortstop," Machado said. "That's my position. If the chance ever came up where I go back to shortstop, it would be great because it was always my dream as a kid to play shortstop in the major leagues."
For now, Machado is a third baseman and is fine with that. He is even happier being back on the field and beginning to again show the form that makes him a potential superstar.
"It was hard being on the disabled list," Machado said. "I love baseball. It's what I do best. I love the game and been playing it all my life. I missed it and it'd great to be back and knowing I'm getting healthier. It's getting better every day."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.