DENVER — Before he moved back to his natural position of shortstop this season, Manny Machado was among the premier third basemen in the game. And by using the word “natural” to describe his place at short, the term is being used in its strictest sense, given how incredible Machado was at the hot corner.
For a few years there, Machado — now with the Dodgers after spending the first 6 1/2 years of his Major League career with the Orioles — had only one defensive peer in his class at third base: the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado. From 2013-17, Arenado (104) and Machado (74) led their respective leagues in defensive runs saved among third basemen.
If you were seeking the most spectacular of plays at the position, the ones that result in you rubbing your eyes in disbelief before promptly gathering your jaw from the floor, these were the two you were after.
Now, even if for a brief two months this season, the pair reside in the same division, the National League West. Though they’ve played on the same field before — at Camden Yards for three games back in 2013, and three games in 2016 — they’re now both competing for the same division title with the Rockies entering Thursday’s series opener 2 1/2 games behind Los Angeles in the standings. The Dodgers enter the contest a half game behind the D-backs, who sit atop the tightly-packed division.
No two players in recent memory have evoked the name “Brooks Robinson” more than Machado and Arenado. Obviously, a great third baseman in Baltimore could have observers throwing the Robinson name around more casually than perhaps it should be. But not in Machado’s case — even Robinson himself told MASN’s Rich Kubatko all the way back in 2013 that Machado, then in his second big league season, was “as good as anybody playing over there.”
Machado has been asked about Arenado before, and Arenado about Machado. But now that they’re in the same ballpark again — and for Machado, he’s playing at Coors Field for the first time — there’s always a backdrop theme of, “these guys were the two best defensive third basemen in the game over the last five years.” Is it a backdrop for them as they take the field?
“Especially my first couple of years [in the Majors], when I saw him putting up big numbers, and I started doing it, I was looking at what he was doing,” Arenado said. “I didn’t want to be left behind. There’s definitely something [of an unspoken competition] there; he was the AL, I was the NL.”
Arenado certainly didn’t get left behind. Machado won two Gold Gloves at third, in 2013 and ’15, but Arenado has won five in five seasons. Machado has watched from afar, and he’s enjoyed it.
“How he plays that position, he’s one of the best of all-time,” Machado said of Arenado. “He’s just great going down the line. There’s plays that he makes full ‘Superman’. That’s what I call him — Superman. He flat out jumps in the air to get those balls in foul territory. He’s unbelievable. He’s freaking full-fledged on the line, diving to catch those balls. He gets on one knee to make so many plays.”
“San Fran,” he said, which is enough for most baseball fans to deduce what he’s referring to, though Arenado has made more than his share of tremendous plays at AT&T Park over the years.
“That was sick.”
For the uninitiated, the play Machado was referring to came on June 28th of last season, when in the third inning, Ty Blach hit a ground ball far to Arenado’s left. Arenado dove full-extension, knocked the ball down, grabbed the baseball as it trickled away from him, spun around on his rear end, and threw from a seated position to get Blach at first base.
Arenado has two favorites when it comes to Machado gems. One is, like Machado’s favorite Arenado play, a popular choice.
“Yankee Stadium,” Arenado said.
Here’s that play. Words don’t do it justice (they don’t do the Arenado play in San Francisco justice either, but the author tried and discovered his own futility in the process):
“There’s also a ball that Albert Pujols hit down the line,” Arenado began, giving us a glimpse into what he appreciates in a third baseman. “He kind of reeled it back in, took his time, set his feet and threw a bullet to first right on a line. He has such a great arm.”
For all of the similarities between the two while Machado played third, he and Arenado pointed out the differences.
“He’s so much smoother than me,” Arenado said. “I think I could get to just as many balls as he could, but he makes things look a little bit easier.”
Machado was a bit incredulous.
“He’s smooth,” he said of Arenado. “We’re just two different players. That’s just the type of player I am — more laid back, more, I don’t know how to explain it. That’s the beauty about this game: we all can’t be robots. We all can’t be the same.
“He plays with energy. He’s always a player that’s fun to watch. For me, personally, he’s one of the smoothest players in the game. Sometimes we just don’t like to give ourselves credit. He definitely does have the swag.”
I asked Arenado back in 2016 (and again in ’17 for good measure, to confirm he wasn’t joking about this) whether he would agree to a “third base-off” during All-Star festivities, where he and (at the time) Machado would compete at third base to see who could make the most incredible plays in a timed format.
Arenado said he’d “absolutely” do it. And on Thursday, Machado said he would’ve participated as well.
“For sure,” he said. “Why not? That’s what we do.”
Oh, what we missed out on. Maybe there’s still a chance. After all, while Machado prefers to play short, he’s a free agent at season’s end, and anything’s possible.
For now, the two square off as opponents in a pennant race, where every spectacular play has much more riding on it than in a Midsummer exhibition.
Let the show begin.