LOS ANGELES — Manny Machado finished his 103rd and last day as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers down on one knee. After Chris Sale had thrown the 84-mph slider at which Machado could only flail before spinning into the batters’ box dirt, the 26-year-old shortstop picked himself up and slowly walked toward the Dodgers' dugout. Sale’s Red Sox teammates rushed out to mob him on the pitcher’s mound, to begin celebrating the World Series they’d just clinched with a 5-1 win in Game 5.
As Machado put away his bat and his helmet in their racks, no one approached him or even looked at him. In the dugout, he put his hands on his hips and watched as the Red Sox threw their hats in the air. Almost all of the Dodgers had disappeared by then. Most of them had witnessed an identical scene last fall, when the Astros had done the very same thing as the Red Sox just had: win a championship in Dodger Stadium. But it was new to Machado. “You want to have this in the back of your mind going forward,” Machado explained, of why he lingered in the dugout. “Remember this, and come back next year—come back even stronger.”
Finally, he picked up his hat and glove and began walking toward the clubhouse to the tunnel. And, finally, somebody gave him a hug.
Machado’s October will be remembered, but mostly for the wrong reasons. He emerged as baseball’s leading heel. In the NLCS, he intentionally ran over the foot of Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar, for which the league fined him $10,000. He countered accusations that he doesn’t always play hard by telling Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, “I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle.’” In Game 3 of the World Series, he confirmed that self-assessment by standing and admiring a ball he was certain he’d hit for a home run, winding up only on first base after it struck the wall.
At least some of his Dodgers’ teammates took exception to his act, but what were they going to do? “You’re getting a superstar player as a rental for half a season to help us win a championship,” said one. “You can’t really tell him he needs to change the way he plays.”
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The longtime Oriole was the prize of the trade deadline—the perfect replacement for the injured Corey Seager—but even with him newly aboard, the Dodgers fell short of that championship for the second straight year. As Dave Roberts regularly adjusted the lineup around him, Machado was a constant. He batted cleanup in each of the Dodgers’ 16 postseason games and played every inning. He started off well, with three home runs and nine RBIs in the first five of those games, through Game 1 of the NLCS. In the last eleven, though, his only extra-base hit was a double, and he drove in three runs. In Game 5, the Red Sox’ clincher, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, including the one that ended it.
As Machado struggled, the Red Sox’ less lauded half-season rentals soared. Boston traded an unheralded minor league infielder for Steve Pearce in late June; Pearce was named World Series MVP after a performance than included three home runs and nine RBIs—seven of those coming in the final two games. They traded a slightly more heralded minor league pitcher for Nathan Eovaldi in late July; Eovaldi threw a heroic six innings in relief in the 18-inning Game 3, even if it ended up as the Red Sox’ the only loss.
Machado, meanwhile, aggravated, slumped, and then ultimately spun out. He might be remembered as the scapegoat for the Dodgers’ failure, and he is indeed the easy target: the mercenary who was brought in to win a title and who did not, and who wasn’t around long enough for anyone to get attached. But if that’s how you’re looking at the Dodgers’ season, you’re looking at it wrong.
For one thing, the Dodgers might not have made the playoffs at all without him. When they sent five players to Baltimore to acquire three and a half months of his services, they were 53–43 (a .552 winning percentage), just a half game up in the NL West. With him aboard, they went 39–28 the rest of the way (.582), and won the division by a single game over the Rockies. In just 66 regular-season games as a Dodger, Machado hit .273 with 13 home runs, 42 RBIs, and six steals.
“He’s incredible in the clubhouse, and obviously he’s an incredible talent,” said starter Rich Hill. “I think we were extremely fortunate to get him at the time that we did.”
In the World Series, Machado was far from alone in underperforming. He occupied one spot in a lineup that the Red Sox outscored, 28–16, and which could get almost nothing going in Game 5, in which everyone who was not David Freese went 1-for-26.
And he had nothing to do with a bullpen that fell apart. Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager, has been maligned for his deployment of his bullpen, but perhaps it appeared as if he struggled to pull the right strings because there were none to pull. Starting in the seventh inning of Game 4, an astounding seven straight Dodgers relievers allowed at least one earned run. By the time Kenley Jansen stopped that streak with a scoreless top of the ninth in Game 5, it was too late.
The Dodgers’ front office, led by team president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi, will be busy this off-season, which for them began at 8:09 P.M. Pacific on Sunday night. They will have to decide what to do with Clayton Kershaw—the ace whose diminished fastball velocity now nearly matches that of his slider—particularly if Kershaw opts out of the two years and $65 million remaining on his contract. They will have to add a few quality relievers. They will have to decide whether to bring Roberts back, after consecutive failures to break the club’s 30-year streak without a title.
One decision they will not have to make, though, is about Machado. He is a free agent, and there is no way he will be returning to the Dodgers—not with Seager expected to return, and not at a price tag that is expected to approach $300 million.
The legacy of his 103 days in L.A. deserves, at minimum, to be viewed as mixed. Yes, he was periodically irritating, and no, the Dodgers didn’t win. But the bottom line, said his retiring teammate Chase Utley? “He made us a better team when he came over here.”
That, really, was his job. Now the Dodgers’ task is to figure out why their very good team has now twice in a row not been quite good enough.