BALTIMORE — In his return from two straight seasons cut short by injury, Manny Machado is at the top of his game as the No. 1 hitter in the Baltimore Orioles' lineup.
The 6-foot-3 third baseman bats right-handed and swings for power, qualities not usually found in a leadoff hitter. Though manager Buck Showalter never has been one to follow standard baseball procedure, he acknowledged that this move was more about desperation than statistics.
"I can't tell you I looked at him last year and thought that's where he would end up," Showalter said. "A lot of it is by necessity. If not him, then who?"
Nick Markakis was not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he did a decent job of it with the Orioles before departing as a free agent last winter. Alejandro De Aza was thrust into the role on opening day, batted miserably throughout April and was replaced by Machado on May 2.
"You get more at-bats, you get to see more pitches. It's been fun," said Machado, who was named to the AL All-Star team for a second time Monday, the same day he celebrated his 23rd birthday.
Machado would have been happy to bat ninth after what he went through the past two years. He missed the end of the 2013 season with torn ligament in his left knee and spent the first month last year on the disabled list. He returned to play in 82 games before a right knee injury cut short his season on Aug. 11.
Machado underwent surgery less than three weeks later so that he would be ready for opening day this season. He hasn't missed a game yet, and has no intention of sitting one out unless Showalter absolutely insists.
"It's a blessing to be playing, to be healthy, to play the game we love every day," Machado said. "It's something you can't take for granted."
Any question about the lingering effect of his knee surgery has been erased. Machado has already set a career high with 19 homers, tied for the team lead. He's batting .301, leads the Orioles with 18 doubles and ranks second with 48 RBIs.
Although those numbers are more typical of a cleanup hitter, Machado has a team-high 13 steals and is on pace to score 100 runs.
"Every time someone talks to me about moving him down in the order, I tell them it's tough to mess with," Showalter said. "Manny brings the ability to get to second with one swing of the bat, as opposed to a single and a stolen base."
The opposition has taken notice, mainly because it's tough to overlook a tall, lanky leadoff hitter with that kind of pop in his bat.
"I wish they weren't doing it, because it's working," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "It's nice to have speed at the top of the lineup, but if they're not getting on base, sometimes I think that can be a little bit misplaced. Getting on base is probably more important than being able to run."
Machado has already reached a career high in walks with 32, three more than he had in 156 games in 2013.
"If he can continue that selectiveness, he's going to have one of those years that we all know he's capable of," Showalter said.
When Machado broke into the majors in 2012 as a 20-year-old, the former No. 1 draft pick showed his prowess with the glove. Now, he's a complete player.
"I just think he's really coming into his own as a hitter," Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "He's starting to figure things out, realizing he doesn't have to do everything with one swing."
Machado attributes his success to growing up. When he first joined the Orioles, he wasn't even old enough to drink beer on the team's chartered flights. Now, he's an All-Star for the second time and arguably one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.
"I've learned the game a little bit — when they're going to pitch to me, when they're not, what they're trying to do with you," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm more patient. It's a thing where you learn as you go."