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After busy offseason, Manny Machado set to take the next step

Can Manny Machado return to his place as one of the top young players in the major leagues?

Manny Machado found peace this offseason staring into the crystal-clear waters of the Indian Ocean while on his honeymoon in the Maldives, a chain of tiny islands about 370 miles from the nearest mainland.

In the 10 December days Machado spent there as a newlywed with his wife, Yainee, he was able to put all his concerns to the side. Staying in a thatched hut held above the water by stilts, with a short staircase that led into the lagoon below, he had no worries. He never reached for his cellphone. If he had, he probably wouldn't have had any reception. For Machado, it was just the escape he needed, especially after the past two years.

"I think that helped me more than anything," Machado said. "I didn't have to think about anything. It was amazing."

He still was rehabilitating from his second knee surgery in as many years, given a program by the Orioles that would keep his knee strong, no matter where he was: step-ups, single-leg squats, wall squats, lunges and jogging he could do even on the remote island.

From the day Machado decided to have season-ending surgery on his right knee in late August, a year after a left knee operation ended his 2013 season, he has focused on returning to the form that had made him one of baseball's most exciting young players. And even on his honeymoon, there was plenty to do.

Few saw all that hard work, but the Machado who returns this season knows all too well what it feels like to have everything taken away in one step — or one swing.

"It's been a tough journey," Machado said. "It's been real long, the past two years with the injuries, especially last year. [Now you] don't take anything for granted. It's a privilege to be on the field and put on a big league uniform. People take for granted when they get up here that one day it could be all gone. It's just a matter of one second, one pitch, one at-bat, and your life could change."

As great as Machado was before his first surgery — he also showed flashes last season despite a late start — he is different this spring. The most common word those in the organization have used to describe him is "confident." He's flying out of the batter's box, diving into the hole and stealing bases like never before.

"It's even different than when he got to the big leagues," manager Buck Showalter said. "There's a certain physicalness to his game that he didn't have — or at least not have yet. … The guy is a college senior now. He's growing into his body. He's put on 7 or 8 good pounds. You can tell there's a little more definition in certain areas. … I think people really underestimate how hard Manny worked in the offseason."

When Machado arrived in the majors in August 2012, his glove helped the Orioles to their first playoff berth in 15 years. He emerged as one of the best young players in the game the following year, his first full season, leading the American League in doubles while winning the AL Platinum Glove, given to the league's best overall defensive player.

But the most routine baseball acts ended his past two seasons. On Sept. 23, 2013, Machado crumpled to the ground holding his left knee after awkwardly stepping on the first base bag, his season over as he left Tropicana Field on a stretcher.

Three weeks later, he had surgery to repair a ruptured medial patellofemoral ligament. He didn't play in a spring training game and missed the first month of the regular season.

On Aug. 11, Machado crumpled to the ground in eerily similar fashion, this time clutching his right knee after swinging at a pitch. Initially, he intended to rehab the injury, so as to avoid surgery and possibly help the club down the stretch in the postseason. But surgery on the same ligament he tore the year before in the other knee was inevitable, so he ended his season, with the goal of being ready for Opening Day.

He missed the Orioles' playoff run, forced to watch as they came within four wins of advancing to the World Series.

"It was tough watching that because I definitely wanted to be a part of that," Machado said. "I hated watching it. But I made a decision and we made a decision. … The decision was made. You can't take it back. I had to look out for my knee. My knee was bad. I could have come back and blown it out the same day coming back, and then what? Now I'm here. If I tried to come back and I had gotten hurt again, I wouldn't have had a normal spring training and felt as good as I do right now. I'm glad I made the decision I did."

Rehab begins

When Machado reported to the Orioles' spring training facility for his rehab in October, he endured sessions lasting three to four hours for five to six days a week. But Machado showed impressive determination in getting his work done.

"He was confident with everything, every step," said minor league medical coordinator Dave Walker, who oversaw Machado's rehab. "There was no trepidation or hesitation. And that's very common to have, but he didn't have that. He was almost giving me a hard time. He was like, 'It's about time. Let's go.' I would ask him if he was ready for the next step, and he'd say, 'What do you think?' He was easy. … If all my guys had that mindset, I wouldn't have any gray hair."

Walker said Machado always was determined to be ready by Opening Day.

"From the get-go, he was like, 'We're going to get this right, and I'm going to be ready for spring training. I'm going to be a normal player,'" Walker said. "The time frame had a little to do with it, but that was his goal from the get-go. Based on the time, it was very attainable, but at the same time, he knew he had to work.

"He didn't want to have any setbacks. He wanted to do it the right way, step by step, so that when it came time to release him to regular baseball activity, he was ready to go. He didn't want to be limited coming into spring training. He wanted to take the same amount of ground balls as [shortstop] J.J. Hardy."

Machado conceded that there were some difficult times, but that Yainee, whom he married Dec. 6 in Angers, France, helped him through it.

"After my first knee injury, and then here comes the second, you do have thoughts of, 'Why? Why again?'" Machado said. "You really can't put those negative thoughts in your head because you already have enough on your plate. You just have to think positive. That's why I have my wife. My wife was very supportive. She helped me out with that. I was having a tough time after my second surgery. She just kept me positive all the time: 'Hey, stay on top.' 'You're going to be all right.' 'You're going to be better than you've ever been.' 'You're going to be better than who Manny Machado is right now.' 'You've got two brand-new knees.'"

By the time Machado returned from his honeymoon — he and Yainee stopped in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, after their wedding before going to the Maldives — he was able to resume many of his offseason routines while completing his rehab. He was able to hit off a tee by late December. He would go from the training room to the weight room to work his upper body.

"After my wedding, I was ready to go," Machado said. "I wanted the season to start already. That's just how I felt. My body felt really good, and I'm able to do everything I can possibly think of. I'm excited this year. I'm going to give it my all. Hopefully, I get to where I was in the past, or even better, and just see where it goes. It's hard to control. But I know what I can control. I know how to hit the ball, I know how to defend and I know how to play the game."

Ready for spring

By January, he could participate in all baseball activities and was ready for a regular spring training. He didn't have that last season, and it showed once Machado returned May 1. He hit just .210 in his first 26 games but went .311/.353/.505 for the rest of the season before his season-ending injury.

"People don't understand how important spring training is," Machado said. "During the year, you don't want to struggle. … You need to struggle here, you need to feel good about yourself here, you need to do it all here so that once the season comes, you know what to expect and you know how to get out of the struggles."

Yainee knows Machado better than most people do. She has been with him for four years, and their families grew up together in Miami. Her brother is San Diego Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso, a close friend of Machado's who also had to undergo season-ending surgery last year. She said Machado appears different coming back from injury this year.

"He's like a completely different person," she said. "He's a lot more confident. His legs are a lot stronger. His upper body is stronger. He's more aggressive in what he does day to day because he feels so confident that his body is finally where he wants it to be. He is just excited for the season to start so he can show everybody he still has it, and he's ready to take it on."

Since Machado suffered a left patellar subluxation — essentially, a dislocation of his left kneecap — in the minor leagues in 2011, there has been concern about his knees. But now, after the surgeries, Machado said he feels as if he has two brand-new knees, which he said will allow him to play with confidence and without worrying that his legs will give out again.

"What's fixed is not going to break again," Machado said. "I've got all the confidence in the world that I need. I know nothing wrong is going to happen. If something bad happens, it's on myself — I didn't work enough or I didn't do what I needed to do. Obviously, injuries are a part of the game. What happens is going to happen. ... The main thing, I think, is that I just need to keep my strength up."

Hardy said Machado looks as healthy as ever.

"It reminds me a lot of his first full year," Hardy said. "He doesn't look like he's lost a step at all. It looks like he's 100 percent. He's out there showing good range. His arm is still his arm, the best arm in baseball, maybe. He has a good attitude, and he seems to be pretty focused. He's an All-Star. He's a Platinum Glove winner. Those say it right there. He's a guy who can hit 50 doubles, score 100 runs. Him staying healthy is a huge help to our team."

And Machado hopes he finally can put together a full big league season without injury while helping the Orioles get back to the postseason this year.

"I think people are underestimating us," he said. "People don't believe in us, just like they haven't the last four years. … We're all going to be on the same path. We have one [goal], and that's to get back to where we were last year or even further. We're at the top. At the end of the day, we're the AL East champs. They're going to have to take it away from us. We're the only team that can control that. We may not have the best team on paper, but we're going to go grind out on that field."

eencina@baltsun.com

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