Tigers’ Machado shines in once-in-a-blue-moon starts

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Dixon Machado is well aware he’s in the major leagues for his defense.

But lately, he could’ve fooled us.

The Tigers’ backup shortstop rarely starts, but when he does, he finds a way to contribute at the plate, getting hits in seven consecutive starts, 10 of his last 11, and 12 of 15 on the season.

That’s some mighty impressive stuff, when you don’t play every day, or anywhere close to it.

“Yeah, he’s probably the best hitter in the American League that doesn’t play,” manager Brad Ausmus said following the Tigers’ 9-1 loss Sunday, when Machado had two of Detroit’s six hits. “He seems to go up there and get a hit whether he’s played back-to-back days or hadn’t played in a week. I give a lot of credit to him.

“It’s a tough role for him, he hasn’t complained, he’s always ready, and he’s done an excellent job when he’s called on.”

Machado, signed out of Venezuela as a 17-year-old, has been on the roster since Opening Day. No trips to Toledo this year, and that’s a first. He had a brief stint in May 2015 and then was a September call-up, and he had a brief stint in August 2016 and then was a September call-up.

It’s a double-edged sword. Machado loves being in the major leagues, of course. The food is great, the hotels are sweet, the travel comfortable. But often times, a rarely used player at the big-league level could benefit more developmentally from playing full time in the minor leagues.

But Machado is making the most of his role, batting .322/.355/.373 in occasionally spelling starter Jose Iglesias.

“It is hard to do this,” Machado admitted Sunday. “But I’m grateful that things are going fine right now.

“This is my role right now, so I try to do the best I can right now. I’m happy with it. I’m happy I’m here; I’m really grateful I’m in the big leagues.”

Machado, 25, has twice gone 10 days between starts this season, once gone eight days, and once gone seven days.

Yet, whenever he’s in the lineup, he’s seemed to make an impact, on both offense and defense. On Sunday, he made two terrific defensive plays in the second inning, including a long running catch to the railing in foul territory behind third base.

Ausmus was asked Sunday if he would try to find him more at-bats, which is easier said than done.

“Look at our lineup,” he said. “It’s tough to find a spot to him. For the foreseeable future, he’s probably gonna be in the same role.”

If this was a trend earlier in the season, Machado might be bumping Jose Iglesias to the bench, much like Alex Avila has done with James McCann.

Iglesias was struggling at the plate, but has turned his season around, batting .397 over his last 16 games. Iglesias, though, could be a trade target at the deadline, a scenario the Tigers have to feel more comfortable with now that Machado has perked up. Same with second baseman Ian Kinsler. Machado can play some second base, too.

The Tigers also are currently without their designated hitter, Victor Martinez, on the DL with an irregular heartbeat. Machado laughed when asked if he’d lobby for some of those reps.

“Nah, nah,” Machado, homerless with four RBIs, said with a smile. “Not yet.”

Machado gets to the ballpark early just about every day, and often takes extra batting practice, with Lloyd McClendon, Leon “Bull” Durham and Dave Clark taking turns feeding him a steady diet of off-speed pitches — often the bugaboo for young players.

He then waits to see if he’s in the lineup.

And when he is, he’s not gonna lie — it’s a surprise, and a rush.

“I get excited, for real,” Machado said. “Because, you know, you’re not there every day. I make my mind up that I’m gonna be successful that day, that I’m gonna do everything good, that I’m gonna get hits, that I’m gonna make every play.

“If I play today, I’m gonna make every play and I’m gonna try to get four hits.

“I mean, it’s not something that I want do all my life, but this is my role right now, so I try to do the best I can right now.”