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Manny Machado finds his swing after switch in Dodgers lineup

Manny Machado punctuated the frustration of his first month as a Dodger with a powerful but fruitless gesture. On Aug. 12 at Coors Field, after striking out to strand a pair of runners late in an eventual loss to the Rockies, Machado gripped his bat with both hands and snapped it over his thigh.

“I was swinging at bad pitches,” Machado said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to go up there and just look for pitches to drive. We all get mad for striking out. Nobody wants to strike out, especially in big situations, a key series for us.”

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At that point, after 23 games as a Dodger, Machado was hitting .264 with two home runs and a .750 on-base plus slugging percentage. The production was useful, but well below the level the Dodgers expected when they shipped a five-prospect package to Baltimore to acquire the four-time All-Star. The Dodgers had installed Machado in the heart of their batting order, hoping he could replace injured shortstop Corey Seager as the regular No. 2 hitter.

The display in Denver prompted a conversation between Machado and manager Dave Roberts. The team had initially scripted Machado in the two-spot, with Justin Turner stacked behind him. In an effort to unlock Machado’s swing, Roberts met with his new star and asked him: Where do you want to hit?

“His initial default was ‘whatever’s best for the ball club,’ ” Roberts said. “But I finally got it out of him what he feels, in his perfect world, if he was writing the script. And he said third. And I talked to J.T., so it made sense.”

Roberts swapped the two hitters Monday at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers lost that night, and they did again Tuesday. Machado started to awaken Wednesday with a trio of hits. He came alive Friday at Safeco Field, bashing a pair of home runs as a reminder of his power.

“I was an All-Star this year, I’ve been hitting all year,” Machado said. “This game ain’t easy. This game ain’t easy. It’s a lot of swings, a lot of at-bats, a lot of games. You can put yourself in situations that you go down the wrong path. You’ve just got to step back, look at the bigger picture and go back to the simple things that got you there.”

It would be simplistic to attribute the uptick to the batting order. Yet the switch reflects the Dodgers’ zeal for maximizing Machado’s production as they claw in pursuit of a sixth consecutive National League West title, all while knowing Machado can depart as a free agent this winter.

The Dodgers do not worry much about shifting their players through various spots in the lineup. The order changes daily. They have separate leadoff hitters against right-handers and left-handers, with Joc Pederson batting first against the former and Brian Dozier against the latter. Last weekend in Colorado, four different hitters occupied the cleanup spot in four games.

Machado had played in 887 games in his seven years in the majors heading into Saturday. He had batted second in 390 games and third in 277 games; he was placed in various other spots in the other 220 games. He spent the majority of 2016 as his team’s No. 3 hitter, hit second more often in 2017 and returned primarily to the No. 3 spot with Baltimore this season.

The difference in his production between the two spots is small. He had an .806 on-base-plus-slugging percentage at No. 2 and an .840 OPS at No. 3.

“At the end of the day, it’s not really about comfort level,” Machado said. “It’s about zoning in and locking in as a hitter. I’m feeling more comfortable at the plate, feeling more comfortable around the guys. And we’re winning some baseball games. So it’s a lot more fun.”

By flipping the two hitters, the Dodgers can amplify their strengths. Turner owns a .379 on-base percentage since arriving in Los Angeles in 2014. As an All-Star last year, he ranked fourth in the majors with a .415 OBP. And while he hit 49 home runs between 2016 and 2017, his power has sagged this season as he recovered from a wrist fracture in March.

Turner entered Saturday with seven homers on the season. Machado had 28. And while Machado has always hit for average, his career OBP is .336. He suggested he would benefit from batting behind Turner in more ways than one.

“He’s a guy who’s going to see pitches, get on base, drive the ball,” Machado said. “He’s just that type of hitter. It makes it a lot easier for me to go up there and hit behind him.”

The combination worked in ideal fashion Friday. Turner collected two hits and scored twice. Machado went deep twice, including a two-run shot in the seventh inning with Turner standing at first base.

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Roberts could not help but be pleased with the result. His conversation with Machado paid dividends later in the week.

“Just trying to figure out where, ultimately, they feel most comfortable,” Roberts said. “And so now if I can have a conversation and get their honest opinion on where they feel comfortable, for me, that was a deciding factor. And I figure we’ll do that, and ride it out.”

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