BALTIMORE -- He could not have envisioned this. At least, not this soon, this meaningful or from this position, a corner infield spot almost completely foreign to shortstop Manny Machado before his arrival in Baltimore.
Yet here Machado is just over a month removed from playing for Double-A Bowie, and his playoff aspirations this season aren't with the Baysox, but with Baltimore, where legions of fans are chanting his name and the 20-year-old continues to play in a manner that ensures the rest of baseball won't soon forget it.
Here is Machado on Wednesday night, pump-faking for the first time in his career to nab the go-ahead runner in a tie game, a rookie fast turning cult hero for a city pining for its first postseason in 15 years. It was Machado who helped orchestrate the Orioles' latest emphatic walk-off win, singling to start the bottom of the ninth and rounding the bases on Nate McLouth's RBI off the right-field wall to make Baltimore's 80th win one for the books.
"It's neat because almost daily you can kind of sense and feel the excitement growing a little bit," McLouth said following the Orioles' 3-2 win, which keeps Baltimore tied with the New York Yankees -- who beat the Red Sox on Wednesday night -- atop the American League East. "The crowds are almost like college football crowds, to be honest with you."
And the rowdy group of 26,076 at Camden Yards was never louder than when Machado -- already with several highlight-reel worthy plays under his belt -- pulled out another show-stopper at third base.
With the score tied at 2 and closer Jim Johnson surrendering a one-out single to Jeff Keppinger, the Orioles watched as pinch-runner Rich Thompson was called safe on a steal attempt at second base, despite replays to the contrary. Machado then fielded Evan Longoria's slow roller with his bare hand, and faked a throw to first base, pivoting and forcing Thompson into an easy rundown as he rounded third base.
"It was just natural," said Machado, who had never attempted the play before trying it with the game on the line Wednesday. "I just came out and didn't think about it."
Luckily, shortstop J.J. Hardy did, and he was there to catch Machado's flip back to third base to set up the inning-ending out in thrilling fashion.
"So often you get caught watching the play develop," Thompson said. "To follow me up is not a play that happens a whole lot for anybody, because that's a play on ground balls. I haven't seen many shortstops who are waiting at third base on that play."
"It was just in case," Hardy said of his positioning. "It didn't surprise me that he did it."
How could that play not have surprised Hardy? Because of what Machado has done since joining the Orioles, holding his own offensively and providing a huge defensive upgrade at third base that makes the organization's gamble -- in calling him up and moving Machado to third base -- pay off big time.
"He's really impressed me," Hardy said of Machado, who made his Major League debut Aug. 9 and earned co-AL Player of the Week that week. "He's really aware of everything that's going on around him. For him to do that in that situation is impressive."
Machado -- who had a similar play in New York recently, but threw the ball away -- said he wasn't sure if he would have had a shot at Longoria at first base, but the pickoff play didn't just end the inning, it turned the tide in the O's favor.
"I was pumped for the play," Machado said as he received high-fives from teammates in the dugout. "Going into that last inning, we [were] all pumped and it came out well."
The late-inning heroics from McLouth -- who has picked up where the injured Nick Markakis left off in the leadoff spot -- and Machado helped erase an otherwise forgettable night for the Orioles' offense. The O's left eight men on base in the first eight innings, going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position as Tampa Bay's stout pitching held them in check.
Oriole starter Miguel Gonzalez struggled with his command early but lasted six innings, allowing two runs on six hits and five walks (one intentional) as he gutted through the 104-pitch outing. Sidearmer Darren O'Day tossed a scoreless seventh and setup man Pedro Strop pitched around a two-out single in the eighth to keep the game tied.
"Command-wise, he wasn't quite there, but it's a real testament to his moxie there," manager Buck Showalter said of Gonzalez, who allowed a leadoff homer but settled in to retire eight straight at one point. "You talk about guys who you want to act like they have hit a home run before. You also as a pitcher want to act like you've given up one before and it's not that big of a deal. He got right back in the competition, and everything that happened tonight, he was as key to it as anything."
The O's put up a pair of first-inning runs courtesy of RBI singles from Matt Wieters and Wilson Betemit, but couldn't muster up anything further off Rays starter Alex Cobb. Machado grounded out to leave the bases loaded in the first, and the Orioles couldn't convert leadoff singles in the second and fourth innings as Cobb left with a no-decision after 4 2/3 innings. Lefty Jake McGee came on following Adam Jones' two-out single and an intentional walk to Wieters, striking out Betemit to keep the score tied at 2.
McGee and Wade Davis kept the Orioles' bats in fits, combining for six strikeouts and not allowing a ball to leave the infield over seven outs following Cobb. Machado's leadoff single in the ninth was the O's second hit since the fifth inning, as Baltimore continues to show its mettle late in the game.
"There's so many different contributors and there's been so many different people kind of step up," McLouth said. "There were plenty of guys who did big things tonight."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.