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TIMORE-- Shortly after 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, Manny Machado jogged out to the infield, and like he has done every game since losing his grandfather on Dec. 24, 2009, he made a sign of the cross before wordlessly tracing the initials "F.N." into the dirt.
Only this wasn't his typical infield and Machado wasn't at his typical position. For the first time in a long time, the 20-year-old Machado felt butterflies as he paid homage to the late Francisco Nunez, part of a close-knit clan that has helped fuel the top prospect's rapid rise to Baltimore's Camden Yards.
But the jitters went away after the first inning and Machado -- who had his contract purchased officially prior to Thursday's game -- proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable 8-2 series-opening loss to the Royals. Batting ninth and playing third base, with his family in attendance and an organization eager to see what the future holds, Machado went 2-for-4 with a triple and a run scored in his Major League debut.
"He's up here trying to help us win and we're not going to put any [expectations on it]," manager Buck Showalter said of Machado, MLB.com's third-ranked prospect, who was previously playing shortstop at Double-A Bowie.
"We'll see [if it's a glimpse of the future]. I've been through this with young players many times. ... And if I know Manny like I think I do, he's probably a little more on the side that we didn't win in the first game he played in, so that's good. But you do step back and realize it is a special time for him. I like his calmness and the way that he approached the competition."
With chants of "Manny" and a standing ovation for his first at-bat in the second inning, Machado was the darling of a crowd of 21,226, which was at its loudest when he blasted Royals starter Will Smith's pitch into the right-center field gap in his second at-bat to start the fifth. The youngster hustled around the bases to make it into third safely, sliding headfirst into the bag. Machado scored on Nick Markakis' liner to left fielder, beating Royals outfielder Alex Gordon's throw to give the Orioles their first run of the game.
"Oh man, it was a load off my shoulder," Machado said of his first hit.
Asked if it gave him some confidence that he can succeed at this level, Machado wasn't willing to go there after one game.
"I wouldn't say succeed, yet," he said. "I've still got a long year and a lot more at-bats to go. But for the first night, I think it went great."
It was late Wednesday night when Machado first received news from Bowie manager Gary Kendall after stepping off the bus in Altoona, Pa. His first call was to his mother, Rosa Nunez, who had to be convinced her son wasn't playing a late-night prank, followed by uncle Geovany Brito, who burst into tears.
"It was just an exciting moment just to hear him cry," said Machado, who would wait daily at his uncle's house across the street until Brito came home from his job as a shipping coordinator, and take him to nearby Goodlet Park in Miami. It was a ritual that started when Machado was 5, and the pair would make the five-minute walk, glove and bat in tow, and play the game for hours.
"This is what I've worked for my whole life, this is what I've dreamed about my whole life," said Machado, who had both Nunez and Brito, among others, fly in from Florida for his first big league game. "And now this moment has come. So it's just a great feeling."
Machado has played just two career Minor League games at third base, but the Orioles feel he's capable of handling another position and helping a Baltimore club -- which entered Thursday in a three-way tie atop the American League Wild Card standings -- make a playoff push.
"When you have the player with this kind of talent, he's a natural," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said of Machado, who was named the Eastern League Player of the Week -- going 10-for-21, including hitting for the cycle on Saturday. "The guy's got a lot of talent and we feel like he can help."
A smooth defender, Machado has drawn comparisons to Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez -- who he works out with in the offseason -- and has regularly taken pregame ground balls at third base, which he did again on Thursday. He had no issues in his debut, holding his own with a pair of assists and a putout.
It was Machado's defense and maturity that struck Orioles catcher Matt Wieters the most this spring.
"The big thing is he's going to have a lot of people asking him to do a lot of different things and to make sure that his first job is to play the game, and everything else will work out on its own time schedule," Wieters, no stranger to nationally-hyped debuts said of his advice for Machado. "Don't try to do everything at once. It's going to be a lot thrown at him right away. So just sit back and soak it in and remember that he will learn what he needs to learn at his own pace."
In his previous nine games with Bowie, Machado was 16-for-33 with three home runs, two triples, three doubles and seven RBIs. He is now part of an Orioles club where he won't be looked at as the best player, but just another cog in the organization trying to reverse 14 consecutive losing seasons.
"Here I'm just a regular third baseman -- a young 20-year-old trying to make it in the league and play and stay here," Machado said. "[The callup] means a lot. It means Buck has faith in me and he has trust in me that I can go out there and try to help this team win."