Clean, legal, case closed

Manny Machado, Tommy Edman

Machado (left) checks on Edman after the Sunday drop slide that blew enough social media up Monday.

Manny Machado isn’t now and never has been a controversy-free baseball player. He’s one of those players who can trigger an uproar  without doing or saying a thing. Sometimes all he has to do is smile.

But it isn’t every day that a man to whom controversy seems as natural as playing third base kicks up a little storm for doing the right thing. Especially when it’s something fundamental he was taught very early in his career.

On Sunday, the Padres’s third baseman reached base in the fourth inning, when the Cardinals’ own third baseman Nolan Arenado committed a very rare (for him) throwing error. Then, Machado ran toward second on a Jake Cronenworth ground ball to Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman.

Edman fielded the ball cleanly while still a few steps behind the proper basepath. Then he stepped into Machado’s path with thoughts about starting a double play. He got the force tag on Machado. At that moment, Machado dropped into an almost excuse-me, soft slide that still upended Edman to keep him from throwing the none-too-fast Cronenworth out at first.

You couldn’t blame Edman for looking about as thrilled as a dental patient after he recovered from the upending. But the first thing Machado did immediately after the slide was move to see whether Edman was injured on the play. (He wasn’t.)

Whether Machado went rogue yet again ran over social media and enough of the sports press well into Monday. That was after Cardinals starting pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim told reporters he thought Machado should have been called for interference, which would have made Cronenworth out at first. Kim also seemed surprised Cardinals manager Mike Schildt didn’t argue for a review to get the call.

It wouldn’t have done Schildt any good if he’d tried, and he probably knew it. The written rules give the baserunner the right of way on the proper basepath, and you can watch the play fifty times from fifty angles and see nothing indicating Machado interfered with Edman fielding the ball in the first place.

Machado was well prepared to execute such a play. His long-enough-time Orioles manager Buck Showalter taught him the play. “I’m still trying to figure out what the story is,” Showalter told The Athletic‘s Dennis Lin.

Showalter told Lin the play was routine business in the Yankee system from his years managing in that system and finally the Yankees themselves. If the runner executes the drop-slide, it breaks up double plays no matter how far you get caught before second base and with little damage otherwise. Showalter indicated to Lin that not only were players taught how to do it running the bases but infielders were taught to be prepared for such drop-slides.

“The first thing I did,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler told Lin, “was I gave him a high-five. I thought it was a play, honestly, that won the game.”

The Padres entered the bottom of the fourth in the hole 2-0. Machado’s reach on the Arenado error led the inning off. After the force out during which Machado kept Edman from turning the double play, Kim walked Tommy Pham and surrendered a bases-loading line single up the middle to Austin Nola—before walking two runs home back-to-back enabling the Padres to tie the game.

Genesis Cabrera relieved Kim and surrendered a sacrifice fly (Patrick Kivlehan) and an RBI single (Ivan Castillo) back to back before catching Trent Grisham looking at strike three for the side. The Cardinals got a run back when Paul Goldschmidt scored as Yadier Molina dialed Area Code 4-6-3 in the top of the sixth, but Grisham made the game 5-3 with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the inning. The Padres bullpen made sure the game finished with that score.

Tingler may well have been right. Machado’s slide as Edman crossed right into his proper basepath just might have won the game for the Padres, or at least set up their best chance to win.

Kim had more or less cruised through the first three innings, shaking off only a two-out base hit in the third while otherwise striking out the side. If he was staggered by the Machado slide enough that he couldn’t believe his manager didn’t demand a review and an interference call, on a play for which no interference and no foul play was involved at all, maybe the Padres pounced from there on a pitcher who just might have taken himself out of of his own concentration zone.

Showalter asked aloud whether Machado gave the Padres the best chance to win, and whether it was a clean play? Then, he answered his own question. “Of course it did,” he told Lin. “Outs are precious, and the game, as much as home runs seem to be there, it’s still about ninety-foot increments—who can keep the other team from getting ninety feet and who can gain ninety feet by something offensively. It should be embraced. It’s a great, thinking man’s baseball play.”

According to Lin, Machado’s former Oriole teammate Adam Jones called the play a legal and intelligent play. Also according to Lin, Jones’s comment got a resounding agreement from an old shortstop-turned-coach-and-manager—a fellow named Larry Bowa, who wasn’t exactly renowned for subtlety or gentility as a player or a leader.

The old Bowa might even have thought Machado’s comparatively dainty slide showed Edman a little too much mercy. Compared to Bowa in his time, the typical hard-nosed player often resembled a marshmallow stick figure.

Machado has faced accusations of dirty play in the past. Even if Tingler himself says it’s become a tired narrative. But Sunday’s play reminded too many fans of the play they think destroyed Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s career back in 2017, the takeout slide at second that injured Pedroia at the back of his left knee. What they don’t remember is that that by itself didn’t put paid to Pedroia’s career.

The tenacious second baseman actually—and perhaps foolishly—managed to gut 105 games out in all 2017 and finished with a .369 on-base percentage plus six defensive runs saved above his league average at second base. But he could play only three games in 2018 and six in 2019, before sitting 2020’s pan-damn-ically mandate irregular season out and retiring three months ago.

“It’s funny,” Pedroia told NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase after his retirement conference. “I remember when I got the first MRI after the play, a doctor said, ‘Hey, man, you could not only ruin the rest of your career but the rest of your life with this injury. You tore all the cartilage off on your medial compartment on your femur and your tibia. Your cleat just got stuck, and it’s a bad deal.’

“And I said, ‘Well, can I play’,” Pedroia continued. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you could try to. It’s going to go. When it goes, you’ll know.’ So I just remember everyone there saying, ‘Hey, we need you.’ So it was a no-brainer. If I had to do it all over again, it wouldn’t even be a question. Of course I would.”

In other words, Pedroia knew the risk of trying to continue playing despite the severity of the injury. We’ll never know for dead last certain whether some sort of knee surgery at the time instead of trying to continue despite that injury might have saved and enabled continuing his career.

About the play itself? In the immediate moment after the actual play, Pedroia himself told anyone who’d listen that he never once believed Machado intended that slide to be either dirty or injurious. Indeed—just as he’d do with Edman on Sunday—the first thing Machado did after coming to his feet was try to aid Pedroia. Machado also sent Pedroia a post-game text apology to Pedroia, who replied that he knew Machado wasn’t trying to injure him.

Without now mentioning Machado by name, Pedroia told Tomase, “Unfortunately, I just got caught in the wrong position and that was it. But I think I’m at peace with everything knowing that I did my best and the training staff and the doctors did everything we possibly could’ve to try to continue to play baseball.”

That effort earned Pedroia serious points in the guts-and-glory department. It also forced him in the end into the partial knee replacement last December that guaranteed he can never run again.

Machado was no more responsible for ending Pedroia’s career than Yankee infielder Gil McDougald was for ending onrushing Indians pitcher Herb Score’s in 1957. Score recovered from McDougald’s liner into his face, returned in due course, looked like his old self opening 1958, then blew his elbow out on a cold, wet night. He sat ten days, then tried foolishly to pitch through it, and by his own admission changed his motion to overcompensate for it “and ended up with some bad habits.”

Score hung on with the Indians until they traded him to the White Sox following the infamous Colavito-for-Kuenn deal in 1960. He didn’t regroup any better with the White Sox or in their minor league system, finally retiring to the Indians broadcast booth in 1964. It didn’t stop Cleveland from believing McDougald drilled a hole into Score’s career any more than the actualities stop Boston and elsewhere from believing Machado plowed a hole into Pedroia’s career.

But that was then, this was Sunday, and Lin would remind you that Nationals shortstop Trea Turner executed an almost exact match slide against the Mets, earlier this season,  though Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor actually stopped short of Turner and didn’t tumble over Turner onto the ground.

Nobody went boo or ballistic over that play, by the way.

“If [Machado] would’ve stopped and they threw to first and threw back to second and tagged him, nobody would’ve said a word,” Showalter told Lin. “If he had let him tag him softly up top, like most people do, nobody would’ve said a word. But because he tried to figure out a way to keep that from happening, I mean, it should be extolled.”

For all we know, too, there may be those willing to rag and bag Machado because the actual slide made him resemble a large sack of dog food falling nonchalantly and accidentally off a low warehouse shelf.

If Machado just stopped short like a good little boy and let that nice Edman consummate the double play he was “entitled” to consummate (some of the social media flappers can make you think that’s what they’re thinking), his critics would probably rag and bag him for not trying to bust up that double play by any means necessary. Hell if you do, hell if you don’t.