For me, the biggest decision of this improbable, unexpected Orioles season happened when the O's promoted Manny Machado from Double-A Bowie. On that day, August 9, the O's were 60-52 and were on a five-game winning streak, so it's not like they were playing poorly by any means. But the surprising move put an end to the likes of Wilson Betemit and Robert Andino (or anyone else) playing third base, the position which Machado has played nearly every day since his call-up.
With Machado, the Orioles went 33-17 to close the season and finished with an insane 93-69 record, ending up two games behind the Yankees in the East but tied with the Rangers in the wild card standings. The 20-year-old Machado gave the O's exactly what they needed. He played a solid third base (which made him look like one of the best fielders of all time considering what fans had been watching at the position for years) and hit with enough power to make him a decent contributor in the lineup. His .262/.294/.445 slash line in 191 at-bats also doesn't look so bad when compared with J.J. Hardy's 2012 line: .238/.282/.389 (in 663 at-bats). That's not to diminish what Hardy has done defensively this season, but there's no question that he's had a disappointing offensive season.
So let's skip ahead to a crucial moment in last night's win over the Rangers. With the O's leading 3-1 in the top of the ninth, Machado stepped to the plate with runners on second and third and one out.
Then he did this:
Machado will swing for the fences until he gets two strikes (and sometimes after), but he also has a tendency to shorten his swing and protect the plate. He strikes out a pretty good amount (18.8%), but not nearly as much as Jim Thome (34.8%), Chris Davis (30.1%), Mark Reynolds (29.6%), Wilson Betemit (27.4%), and Ryan Flaherty (25.7%), just to name a few. So even though Joe Nathan made a pretty good pitch down in the zone, Machado was able to still get a decent swing on the ball on hit it past a diving Elvis Andrus at shortstop.
After Machado's single, Nate McLouth added a sacrifice fly, pushing the score to 5-1. As it turned out, the Rangers loaded the bases against Jim Johnson with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, though Johnson got David Murphy to fly out harmlessly to left field to end the game. He still may have saved the game even if the score had been 3-1, but those extra two runs were obviously helpful.
I don't know what the future holds for the Orioles, both in the American League Division Series against the Yankees and beyond. And I've said this before: This season has provided the most sports enjoyment for me in a really long time. Regardless, this team and what they've accomplished up to this point has been nothing short of amazing, and I really hope it continues.
Whenever/however it does end, I'm going to look back on this season and wish I had written more at various points during the wild ride, but that hardly matters right now. The Orioles are about to begin a five-game playoff series against the Yankees, with the first two games at Camden Yards, a magnificent place that's going to be packed with excited and raucous fans believing that one playoff win was great, but that knocking out the Yankees and advancing to the ALCS would be that much sweeter. It really would. And I'm not going to be the one to tell them it won't happen.