Development of Manny Machado continues, while pressure intensifies

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The problem with talent like Manny Machado's is it's hard to accept that it can sometimes fail. And baseball is a game of failure.

Machado, recently ranked the ninth-best prospect in the minors by Baseball America, represented the Orioles on Sunday during the MLB Futures Game, going 1-for-3 with two RBIs. And same as any other time Machado plays, expectations were high.

"People come out and expect Superman instead of looking at a guy who's a baseball player," said Gary Kendall, Machado's manager with the Double-A Bowie Baysox.

But what happens when Superman fails? How does a batter who hit .639 in his last year of high school go through a weeks-long slump and not worry, if even for a second, that the pressure has defeated him?

One cold night in Miami, Lazaro Fundora, Machado's high school coach at Brito Private, was worried.

It wasn't so much that Fundora's lanky shortstop booted the ball, nor was it that he threw another one away in the same inning, even though he rarely did either of those things. It wasn't that he struck out the inning prior, either, though he only did that twice all season.

It wasn't any of those things that had Fundora worried so much as the 40 or so scouts lining the field to watch Machado. Scouts with small notebooks and big expectations, writing, evaluating, judging.

"A regular kid would've just folded there, put their head down and just felt like the world was coming down on them," Fundora said. "When that inning was over and he went back into the dugout, I told him, 'Keep your head up.'"

Machado had to know the scouts were there to see him. But if he did, he didn't care.

"Nah," Machado said. "I'm OK."

Of all Machado's gifts — instincts, bat speed, patience — perhaps his most useful is the ability to ignore. He ignored the rare strikeout and errors (he ended that night in Miami with three hits and all five of Brito's RBIs), and the scouts did, too. The Orioles selected him third overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, just two spots behind Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals.

The expectations for Machado have only intensified. After the draft, he was called the O's best prospect since Matt Wieters. When that wasn't good enough, pundits said he was the next Alex Rodriguez.

Like any prospect, Machado struggles at times. It took time to adjust to Double-A pitching, and he went 7-for-59 from May 21 through June 7. Yet before Thursday's game against the Harrisburg Senators, the frustration of the three-week slump behind him, Machado couldn't grasp why his slump should come with more pressure than anyone else on the team.

"Everybody goes through a slump," Machado said with a shrug. "To be honest, I don't even think about [where I was drafted]. Just go out and play. They drafted me for a reason."

Kendall indicated that Machado, who turned 20 on July 6, has separated reality from the hype. He can set a standard of effort and performance for himself without chasing the unattainable.

"I know he feels that he's doing fine," Kendall said. "He is doing fine. But sometimes onlookers, people that come out, sometimes expect something different."

Baysox infielder Jonathan Schoop, who has advanced in the Orioles system with Machado for two years, said that the shortstop didn't feel outside pressure to start hitting, or at least didn't show any signs of that pressure. Fundora said he couldn't remember a time in high school when Machado was overwhelmed by the attention. ("I guess some kids just have it," Fundora said).

After a torrid stretch in June and early July, Machado is hitting closer to expectations, and has raised his batting average to .264. He also said he wouldn't protest a move away from shortstop to third base. Machado's size, at 6 feet 3, along with his instincts and lateral movement make him a better fit at the hot corner. The organization has already experimented with Machado at third and plans to do so again, but for now, Machado remains at shortstop.

That's where he played Thursday in an 8-6 loss to Harrisburg. Most of the night was an exercise in failure. He walked once and failed to record a hit in his first two at-bats. In the field, he played a statistically flawless game but came within inches of two diving stops that would've saved a run.

He waited until his last at-bat of the night to display the talent that garnered all of the expectations in the first place. In the eighth inning, Machado took a strike. He waited. Then, he saw one he liked and turned on the pitch, sending a towering home run over the left-field wall deep into the dark, sticky Bowie night.

zhelfand@baltsun.com

twitter.com/zhelfand

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