LOS ANGELES – The National League Championship Series has a villain and it is Manny Machado.
He almost certainly will not care he has been cast as such, which is an equally important part of the act.
A Dodger since mid-July, out of last place since then, creeping toward free agency since then, Machado has taken the occasion of October baseball to showcase the many sides of Manny.
The righteous bat. The willowy D. The exquisite instincts. The slow roll. The indifference to those who cannot appreciate the chill and stylings of the slow roll.
And the callous, self-entitled childishness of the nationally televised, nationally pilloried cheap shot.
He will make his fortune one day soon. His future is safe, for he is an exceptional ballplayer. And then he will be someone’s to live with for a very long time, married to the many sides of Manny.
In the 10th inning of Game 4 of the NLCS, in which the Dodgers had scored one run Tuesday night, in which his contribution to that point was a fifth consecutive hitless at-bat, Machado appeared to intentionally slew-foot Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesús Aguilar. Out by a wide margin on a ground ball to shortstop, Machado by appearances took aim, stuttered and measured his step, then whacked Aguilar’s leg with his own as he crossed the bag.
This was unnecessary. This was dirty. This was a man perhaps frustrated by making an out, and seemingly conflicted over whether the game is to be played in a leisurely manner or with reckless and harmful intent, who earlier in the day defended himself against accusations he could not – or would not – play with his entire effort, who by midnight was explaining that lining up and striking a defenseless opponent was merely a byproduct of the game.
Aguilar had recoiled in pain. Machado had appeared defiant. The two had shared what seemed to be an angry exchange and then had been separated. The field around them had become crowded with players defending their own.
The Brewers already had become wary of Machado. Early in the series, his swing follow-through brought his bat to the head of catcher Manny Piña, who fell in pain. Machado, who struck out on the pitch, left the batter’s box and did not look back, at best a breach of etiquette. Twice on Monday, Machado slid hard into second base, both times on the border between legal and illegal and neither overtly dangerous. But, Machado, who’d dogged a grounder earlier in the series, seemed intent on erasing that image with a new one, one of a hard-nosed player getting after it. The line was becoming blurred.
Later, after the Dodgers beat the Brewers, after Machado whispered into the ear of Aguilar and the two shared a half-hug three innings after the deed, after Machado raced into scoring position on a wonderful read of a dirt ball, after Machado scored the game-winning run in the 13th inning and fell into the arms of Yasmani Grandal, the chorus in the Brewers’ clubhouse found its note.
“It’s a dirty play by a dirty player,” Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich told reporters.
— Joe Trezza (@JoeTrezz) October 17, 2018
“It’s a dirty play,” Brewers infield Travis Shaw told reporters. “He can say whatever he wants. It was dirty.”
Machado sat for a long time in front of his locker. The game had required five hours, 15 minutes to play. He looked through his phone. He peeled off a layer of uniform, the white jersey and pants leg stained by his final dash around the bases. He looked through his phone. He tossed various pads and sleeves into his locker. He looked through his phone. Soon, he was in a blue T-shirt, sliding pants and shower shoes. He looked through his phone.
The Dodgers were alive in the NLCS — tying the series 2-2 — because they had held the Brewers to one run over those five hours and 15 minutes. Because they’d made a handful of stunning defensive plays. Because Manny Machado had lifted a broken-bat single into left field, and read a breaking ball that rolled just far enough from catcher Erik Kratz, and almost but did not get picked off from second base, and still took a meaty secondary lead so he could score when Cody Bellinger singled to right field in a sublimely gritty at-bat. These were the things that Manny Machado did, that and kick the Brewers’ first baseman for no reason anyone could think of, that and wrap his massive talent in a malicious streak.
Told of what the Brewers thought of his actions, Machado said, “I play baseball. I try to go out there and win for my team. If that’s their comments, that’s their comments. I can’t do nothing about that.”
Asked, well, exactly what happened on the play, exactly why the collision occurred, Machado said, “Why? You saw the replay, probably. I was trying to get over him and hit his foot. If that’s dirty, that’s dirty. I don’t know, call it what you want.”
Asked, then, what was said between Aguilar and himself, Machado said, “What stays on the field stays on the field, between the lines.”
So, he was asked, if Aguilar were still angry with him, and Machado said, “We go way back. Whatever happens on the field stays between the lines.”
So, what to make of the Dodgers today.
Which is not to say this is not about the Brewers, that they didn’t play the Dodgers into some weird corner where Machado is having to explain every trip to first base, and Kikè Hernández is apologizing to the locals for calling them moribund and Yasmani Grandal is benched for being unable to adequately hold down his position.
This is to say that for four games of this NLCS, the Dodgers have looked a lot less like the team that has been here before – for the last three falls and four of six – and a lot more like some may have expected the Brewers to look. Unsure of their footing. Unsure of themselves. Unsure of the moment.
There is, perhaps, now a focus in the series. It is their shortstop. It is the villain. And it is the guessing, now, of which side of him will reveal itself next.
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