Eventually, something will tip the scales in the American League East—the most hotly contested and intriguing division in baseball.

Manny Machado might be that something.

On Sunday, Machado clubbed three home runs in his first three at-bats as the Baltimore Orioles rolled to a 10-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.

With the victory, the Orioles grabbed sole possession of first place in the AL East by one game over the Toronto Blue Jays and three games over the Boston Red Sox.

In the process, Machado reminded us all that he’s one of the streakiest, most gifted hitters in baseball—a superstar capable of carrying a franchise.

It’s not that Machado had been dormant before Sunday’s outburst. But after sprinting out of the chute in 2016 like an MVP front-runner, he leveled off a bit.

Machado hit just four home runs between June 25 and August 6 and saw his OPS fall 85 points during that span.

He nearly matched that power output Sunday with homers in the first, second and third innings. He tallied seven RBI. And he gained back 22 points of OPS for good measure.

Let’s gaze upon all three blasts, courtesy of Baltimore’s official Twitter feed:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the swing of a man preparing for liftoff.

We’ve seen this Machado before. After an injury-shortened 2014 campaign, he played in all 162 games last season, cracked a career-high 35 home runs, posted 7.1 wins above replacement and finished fourth in AL MVP voting.

Just 23 entering this season, he appeared primed to attain next-level greatness.

He hasn’t disappointed. In fact, he’s beginning to resemble the peak on-field version of his mentor, Alex Rodriguezwho announced his retirement Sunday—as FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan outlined in June:

We can’t say that Manny Machado has become as good as prime Rodriguez. But we can say that Machado is looking about as good as prime Rodriguez….

Prime Alex Rodriguez was worth about seven and a half wins per 600 trips to the plate. Machado is on course to be worth about seven and a half wins per 600 trips to the plate.

Machado can further cement his status among the Junior Circuit elite with a scalding stretch run and push the Orioles into October for the second time in three years.

The Red Sox’s offense has been the toast of baseball for much of the season, and it paces MLB in runs scored and OPS. The Blue Jays are also among the top 10 in both categories and have a 3.75 team ERA compared to the Red Sox’s 4.26.

The Orioles’ starting pitching has wobbled to the tune of a 4.89 ERA. They added left-hander Wade Miley at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, but his eight-hit, four-run debut suggests he won’t be a savior.

The bullpen, which boasts the second-lowest ERA in the AL, is a strength.

Ultimately, though, Baltimore will live and die with its bats, which lead both leagues in home runs (139) and rank third in OPS (.775).

An array of contributors—Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, Pedro Alvarez, Jonathan Schoop—have chipped in. But this is Machado’s team all the way. If he can go bananas from here into autumn, he could mask a lot of flaws.

Granted, he’s not the only mega-star in the East. Boston has the ageless David Ortiz and a cast of up-and-comers including Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. The Jays have reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson.

No one, however, combines youth, ability and past results quite like Machado. If you’re looking for a horse to hitch your wagon to, he’s the thoroughbred.

He’ll have plenty of chances to ding his division foes, as the Orioles play the Jays six more times and the Red Sox nine more times before season’s end.

“The game slows down for him sometimes, and he does things that not many people do,” Orioles skipper Buck Showalter said after Machado’s three-homer game, per MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli. “So, get a good seat for it, shut your mouth and try to enjoy it.”

Machado got a taste of the postseason in 2012, when the Orioles snagged a wild-card spot and advanced to the American League Division Series. The New York Yankees eliminated them in five games.

He missed the party in 2014, however, after a knee injury sidelined him in August. The Orioles won the division and swept the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS but fell in four games to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.

Now, after a disappointing 2015, they have another shot. They just need that certain something to nudge them over the top.

Something like vintage Manny Machado.


All statistics courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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