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Manny Machado finds comfort at shortstop as he prepares for his next big move

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SARASOTA, Fla. — If Manny Machado were any more comfortable in spring training, he’d be carrying a hammock out to the field with him.

Six years after his last full-time exposure to playing shortstop — with the Double-A Bowie Baysox — Machado is making a glitch-free transition back to the position. If his employers, the Baltimore Orioles, had any concerns that a focus on defense might hinder his offensive production, Machado’s .419/.457/.744 slash line in 43 Grapefruit League at-bats is an early statement to the contrary. The bat is all revved up and ready to go.

A momentous year awaits Machado, who has made three All-Star Games, won two Gold Gloves and finished in the top five in MVP balloting twice in five seasons. He’s one of two generational position players due to hit the free-agent market in November, and some big-market clubs recalibrated their luxury tax threshold status this offseason in anticipation of making a run at him or Bryce Harper. (Those teams know who they are.)

The collateral damage from trade rumors, massive contract projections and a position switch might be enough to rattle a young star, but Machado, 25, exudes the calmness of a player with a pine-tar grip on his destiny. He has been in a good place since that day in the offseason when manager Buck Showalter called and told him he would be moving from third base to his favorite spot on the field.

“I think a lot of people are saying, ‘He’s going over there because he wants more money or more value,'” Machado told ESPN.com. “It doesn’t come down to money or more value. I’ve already established myself as a player. I’m worth what I’m worth already. It doesn’t matter if I’m at short or third. The transition over there is because that’s where my heart is. That’s what I do.”

Machado elicited Alex Rodriguez comparisons as a teenager, when the Orioles spent $5.25 million to sign him as the third pick in the 2010 draft. He shifted to third base in deference to J.J. Hardy and made the transition look easier than anyone had a right to expect. He won a Platinum Glove as the American League’s best overall fielder in 2013 and logged an aggregate plus-81 defensive runs saved at third base from 2012 to 2017.

Now he’ll try to impose his will upon the game from shortstop. The early reviews from Grapefruit League scouts are positive.

“He makes every throw,” an AL talent evaluator said. “He makes every play look easy. Because of positioning and the shift, I think range is overrated now anyway. He still has elite body control, and his hands are as special as they were when he was at third base.”

Hardy is an unemployed free agent this winter at age 35, but his influence still resonates in Baltimore’s camp. Showalter has taken note of Machado’s fundamentally sound approach to starting double plays. Rather than field a grounder and gun it across his body to second, Machado is more inclined to secure the ball with two hands, show it to Jonathan Schoop and shovel it in a more easily catchable manner.

And some things simply can’t be taught or ingrained through osmosis.

“Manny can create a lot of velocity with his arm from different angles, so he doesn’t have to have momentum going toward the target,” Showalter said. “That’s why he made so many plays at third. The arm strength that he showed there moving away from the target really plays at shortstop, too.”

During Machado’s extended run at third, a part of him missed the constant action, movement and traffic-cop responsibilities of shortstop. He is mentally engaged now and liberated to use all the physical gifts at his disposal.

The support team in Baltimore has helped expedite the transition. Infield coach Bobby Dickerson, who tutored Machado on the finer points of third-base play, is still around to provide feedback, pointers and an abundance of fungoes. And Machado will see a familiar face at the end of those double-play flips. Machado and Schoop were middle infield partners for Frederick, Delmarva and Bowie in Baltimore’s system in 2011 and 2012, so they felt an instant synergy upon arrival at Ed Smith Stadium this spring.

As teenagers in the minors, Machado and Schoop reserved their last 10 double-play hookups before the game for blind throws, flips off the glove and other Vizquel-to-Alomar-caliber acrobatics. The chemistry between the teammates is evident when they loosen up as catch partners and banter with each other during idle moments around the bag.

“We’re gonna do some crazy things and impress some people this year,” Machado said.

In preparation for the physical grind at shortstop, Machado altered his workout schedule over the winter. He concentrated more on lateral movements than he did at third base, while sticking with his intense weight-training regimen. But the biggest change was an increased focus on nutrition.

Machado went on a health kick, revamped his diet and added strength and more definition to his body during the offseason. He arrived at camp at about 215 pounds, close to his playing weight of a year ago, while reducing his body fat from 14 percent to 10-11 percent.

Challenging as it was, Machado eliminated two of his go-to dietary staples through the years.

“I love pizza and McDonald’s,” he said. “Chicken nuggets and a large fries — that’s my thing. For a while I would drive past a McDonald’s and I’d want to stop. But once you change your eating habits and put the right things in your body, you don’t even crave it anymore.

“Are you going to put cheap gas in your Lamborghini? I feel like I’m a Rolls-Royce or a Lamborghini — whichever one. It doesn’t matter. It’s an expensive car, and you’re not going to put something cheap in there. Once you put the good stuff in there, you can’t go back.”

Machado hired a personal chef who came over to his house daily to prepare lunch and dinner. Among his new dietary staples: bone broth, garlic, peanuts, almonds and lots and lots of greens. He’ll still snack on tortilla chips and salsa, nibble on the occasional sweet or break open a bag of sour cream and onion-flavored potato chips now and then. But those moments of weakness are fleeting.

“And only the baked ones,” Machado said, after sharing his potato-chip-related confession.

Machado envisions the dietary changes benefiting him for the rest of his life — not just his baseball life. Short-term, he’s making small and subtle decisions each day to better navigate his walk year. In contrast to Harper, who categorically shut down free-agency talk at a news conference upon arrival at Washington Nationals camp, Machado is picking his spots carefully and trying to weed out the noise.

A small brushfire appeared last week out of nowhere. After Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge told Machado he would look good in pinstripes, Major League Baseball took notice, and Machado was put in a position where he had to respond. He told reporters the encounter was “blown out of proportion,” and all parties did their best to move forward.

The occasional flare-up notwithstanding, Machado has a plan in place for 2018. If all goes well, he will play at least 155 games, as he has done for four of the past five seasons, and the Orioles will surpass their PECOTA projection of 70 victories. Come November, he’ll sit down with his family and his representatives from the MVP Sports Group and assess his career options.

“I know I’m blessed,” Machado said. “Everyone works hard to get to this situation. What I’ve learned is, we can’t control what the outcome is. I can only control going out there and putting up the best numbers and taking my team to the playoffs and being the best person I can be out there. Those are the things I can control.”

Baltimore’s starting rotation might have something to do with the team’s record, but you get the picture. As spring training nears the end, Machado’s bat is cooking, and he’s enjoying the vantage point from his new/old position at short. It’s almost time to take the Lamborghini out of the garage.

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Miami Marlins outfielder Starling Marte day-to-day with fractured left pinkie

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Miami Marlins center fielder Starling Marte suffered a non-displaced fracture of his left pinkie after getting hit by a pitch Wednesday, but there is optimism that he could continue playing, and he is considered day-to-day.

Marte, 31, was hit in the hand on a fastball by Chicago Cubs reliever Dan Winkler in the ninth inning of Miami’s 5-1 wild-card-opening win in Chicago. Marte was in obvious pain and quickly retreated down the clubhouse tunnel and underwent X-rays in the hand.

He was replaced by Monte Harrison.

Marte, acquired at the trade deadline from the Arizona Diamondbacks, hit .281 with 6 home runs, 27 RBIs and 10 stolen bases this season.

He was deemed to be “100 percent” by manager Don Mattingly entering the game after he was hit by a 94-mph fastball on the front of his helmet by New York Yankees pitcher Clarke Schmidt during Sunday’s regular-season finale.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Atlanta Braves overcome Cincinnati Reds in longest scoreless duel

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ATLANTA — The scoreless innings kept piling up, along with the strikeouts. The shadows began to creep across the infield, and when the lights came on in a mostly empty stadium for a postseason game that began a little past noon, it seemed like this might go on forever.

Finally, Freddie Freeman had seen enough.

The MVP candidate who warded off a frightening bout with the coronavirus at the beginning of this most unusual season fittingly delivered the winning hit in the 13th inning, ending the longest scoreless duel in postseason history as the Atlanta Braves defeated the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 in the opener of their National League Wild Card Series on Wednesday.

“That was a very stressful 4 1/2 hours,” Freeman said with a chuckle.

The East champion Braves won a postseason opener for the first time since Game 1 of the 2001 NL Division Series. They’ll try to wrap up the best-of-three series Thursday and snap a record-tying streak of 10 straight playoff round losses.

“We’re one away from winning it,” said Atlanta starter Max Fried, who went seven scoreless innings and was just 7 years old the last time the Braves won a playoff series. “I’m feeling really good going into tomorrow.”

What began as a pitching showdown between between Cy Young contenders Fried and Cincinnati ace Trevor Bauer devolved into a strikeout contest played before a handful of family and friends at Truist Park.

The teams combined for a postseason record 37 Ks — 21 by the Braves.

After a couple of hits in the 13th against Archie Bradley, Freeman drove one into center field off Amir Garrett against a five-man infield with one out to end a game that dragged on for more than 4 1/2 hours.

A four-time All-Star, Freeman produced another big year in a pandemic-shortened season after a battle with COVID-19 in July so severe that he said he prayed: “Please don’t take me.”

In the 13th, he came up in a situation he relishes.

“That’s the guy we want up there,” manager Brian Snitker said.

A.J. Minter escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the top of the 13th for the win — the third straight inning the Reds pushed a runner to third but couldn’t get him another 90 feet.

“These guys take so much pride in coming through in those situations,” Reds manager David Bell said. “Each and every time we had the opportunity, we believed it was going to happen.”

While there is no denying the historic nature of the first postseason game to be scoreless after 11 innings, it hardly qualified as a masterpiece leading off an unprecedented day of eight playoff games.

With the designated runner at second base no longer in play for postseason games, two teams that rely heavily on the long ball took turns just flailing away at the plate, passing on several opportunities to bunt runners along.

Mostly, they stirred up nothing but a stiff breeze.

“We’re a big-swinging team,” Snitker said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t happen.”

Bauer certainly lived up to his billing as one of baseball’s best pitcher. The outspoken right-hander became the first pitcher in big league history to record 12 strikeouts with no walks, no runs and two or fewer hits in a postseason start.

Bauer was lifted after retiring the first two hitters in the eighth, doing the Braves chop on his way to the dugout.

“I brought my ‘A’ game and everything,” Bauer said. “I was exhausted.”

The Braves’ only real threat against Bauer came in the sixth, when Ronald Acuna Jr. led off with a double to the wall in center and moved to third on Freeman’s groundout. NL home run and RBI king Marcell Ozuna popped out behind home plate, and Travis d’Arnaud struck out swinging.

Fried went nearly pitch for pitch with the Cincinnati ace, surrendering six hits while striking out five. He didn’t walk anyone, either.

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Carlos Correa throws down gauntlet on Houston Astros haters

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MINNEAPOLIS — Shaken up by a scandal before the coronavirus pandemic shrunk the season, the Houston Astros barely played well enough to reach the playoffs — with the rest of baseball actively rooting against them.

Well, they’re not ready to leave yet.

Carlos Correa hit a two-out, tiebreaking home run in the seventh inning for the Astros, who produced another stifling pitching performance and swept Minnesota over two games with a 3-1 victory Wednesday that sent the Twins to a record 18th straight postseason loss.

“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”

Nine months after Houston’s rules-breaking, sign-stealing system was revealed, the Astros advanced to the American League Division Series in Los Angeles. As the sixth seed, they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five matchup starting Monday at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t think they necessarily thought that they had anything to prove. They just had to play ball,” said manager Dusty Baker, who took his fifth different team to the playoffs and advanced for the first time in seven rounds since winning the 2003 National League Division Series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Twins are 0-18 in the playoffs since winning Game 1 of their division series at the New York Yankees on Oct. 5, 2004, a total of seven rounds lost. Since that date, the Astros are 43-35 in postseason play, winning 10 of 15 rounds with three trips to the World Series.

“We’re a solid team,” Correa said. “We play great baseball. We won a series on the road in Minnesota. So what are they going to say now?”

Kyle Tucker hit two RBI singles for the Astros and made a key throw from left field for the inning-ending out in the fifth.

Rookie Cristian Javier worked three hitless innings in relief for the victory in his postseason debut, and Ryan Pressly pitched a perfect ninth against his former team, giving the Houston bullpen a total of 9⅔ scoreless innings in this wild-card series, with three hits allowed.

“From the very beginning, we envisioned ourselves back in the playoffs and playing real well,” Tucker said. “So we never counted ourselves out at any point.”

Nobody on this Twins team has had a hand in more than six of the playoffs losses, but for the second consecutive year one of baseball’s most potent lineups limped through a brief postseason cameo. In a three-game division series sweep by the Yankees last year, the Twins totaled seven runs and 22 hits. Against the Astros, they mustered only two runs and seven hits.

“We put a lot of balls in play, it seemed like, but they were up in the air and, yeah, it seemed like we played into their trap,” said Max Kepler, one of four starters who went hitless in the series. “At the end of the day, we didn’t get the job done.”

Nelson Cruz gave the Twins an RBI double for a second straight game, this time in the fifth inning against starter Jose Urquidy. Luis Arraez aggressively tried to score from first base, but Correa took the throw from Tucker and fired home to beat Arraez to the plate to preserve the tie after third-base coach Tony Diaz waved him in.

“I don’t know why he sent him,” Correa said.

Then in the seventh against losing pitcher Cody Stashak, Correa drove a 1-0 slider into the tarp-covered seats above right-center field for his 12th home run in 52 playoff games.

After winning 101, 103 and 107 games in the past three regular seasons, winning the 2017 World Series and losing the championship in seven games to the Washington Nationals last year, the Astros stumbled through the 2020 season at 29-31 under Baker and new general manager James Click with a slew of injuries after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the schedule to 60 games.

They had the third-worst road record in the major leagues, too, but none of that mattered this week against the third-seeded Twins, who were out of sorts in their two biggest games this year.

Jose Berrios was one of the few who were locked in with five strong innings to start, with just two hits allowed. His two walks were costly, though, issued right before Tucker’s single in the fourth.

“I don’t think anyone was ready to leave, to end this way,” Cruz said. “That’s life.”

KIRILLOFF FOR BUXTON

Already missing third baseman Josh Donaldson, the Twins held another one of their most valuable players out: center fielder Byron Buxton. Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli declined to confirm whether Buxton was experiencing a recurrence of concussion symptoms that kept him out of the last two regular-season games. Buxton was picked off first base after pinch running for Cruz in the eighth.

Kepler moved to center, and Alex Kirilloff — the 2016 first-round draft pick — played right field to become the first Twins player in history to make his major league debut in a postseason game. Kirilloff singled in the fourth. With the bases loaded in the first, he flied out to end the inning.

FEELING BLUE

Both teams took issue with plate umpire Manny Gonzalez’s strike zone, with Astros slugger George Springer the first to visibly complain. After being called out on strikes in the fourth, Springer barked, “No way, man!” multiple times on his way back to the dugout.

Then in the sixth, the Twins lost left fielder Eddie Rosario to ejection after he argued a called strike two that would’ve given him a walk if it were called a ball. After swinging and missing at strike three, Rosario yelled again and was quickly tossed.

First-base umpire Tim Timmons missed consecutive calls in the eighth inning on grounders by the Astros when he called the runners safe. Both were reversed to outs after replay review.

UP NEXT

The Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series in each of the past three years, will play Monday against either the A’s or the White Sox. Right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. is the only member of their regular-season rotation who did not pitch in Minnesota.

The Twins enter the offseason with 10 players set to become free agents, including the 40-year-old Cruz, who led the team in home runs and batting average (among players with a qualifying amount of at-bats) for a second straight season. Their 2021 opener is scheduled for April 1 at Milwaukee.

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