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Padres’ Manny Machado returns to vintage form

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This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell’s Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Manny Machado looks like Manny Machado again — and not a moment too soon for the Padres.

It’s not just that Machado is heating up at the plate. (Which he is: He’s hitting .385 over the past week.)

It’s that Machado is back to doing the unique things he has a tendency to do. The juggling catch he made on Saturday was ridiculous — and one of about a dozen excellent defensive plays he’s made since his return from the injured list.

On top of that, he scored from first on a single on Saturday, purely on instinct. He broke for second when he noticed that Rockies starter Kyle Freeland was working out of the windup. Then when the ball dunked into shallow left-center — with both Rockies outfielders shading away from that gap — Machado aggressively rounded third and forced the issue.

It’s been a strange start to the year for Machado. He signed his contract extension in late February, with those negotiations lingering longer than he would’ve liked. Then, immediately after his deal was finalized, he left the team to participate in the World Baseball Classic.

Machado dealt with back trouble in April. He fractured a metacarpal in his left hand in May.

If you’ve listened to Machado talk over the years, you probably know his favorite answer to every question we ask. “Just play baseball.” It’s his stock answer when things are going bad and when things are going good. Just play baseball, the rest will work itself out.

So it naturally pained Machado when he couldn’t “just play baseball.” His fractured hand landed him on the IL for the first time in nine seasons.

But Machado is back and healthy — and his swing seems quintessential Machado again. He homered to the opposite field on Friday night. He racked up three hits on Saturday.

“It’s just [about] barrels,” Machado said. “Whether it’s oppo or pull, both sides, doesn’t matter. It’s just about barreling the ball.”

Added manager Bob Melvin: “In general, he has a really good idea of how he’s going to be pitched. Some guys are going to go soft-in to him, and he’ll try to pull those. … Other times it’s going to be away, and he’ll shoot the ball the other way. The thing is, he’s got power to all fields.”

It’s hard to overstate just how important Machado can be to this team. It often feels like as Machado goes, so go the Padres. That’s true when times are good — take the postseason last year for example. That’s true when times are not so good — like the slow start to this season.

If Machado is, indeed, back, then maybe the Padres are, too? Prior to Sunday’s demoralizing walk-off loss, they’d played some of their best baseball of the season over the past week.

“We’re playing good defense,” Machado said. “We’re getting some healthy guys back. We’re doing what we need to do. Defense has always been there. Pitching has been holding up. It’s always been the offense, and we’ve been stringing hits together, we’ve been hitting with some runners in scoring position.”

Then Machado turned to that phrase he loves so much.

“So just keep playing baseball. It’s a long season.”

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