- - Monday, June 18, 2018

It was on a humid, sticky day in 2011 when two top MLB prospects, playing in the minors in different corners of Maryland, faced off on an Eastern Shore field.

Nationals phenom Bryce Harper, at the time with the Hagerstown Suns, and infielder Manny Machado, then with Orioles’ Delmarva farm team, arrived in Salisbury for the low Single-A South Atlantic League All-Star game.

On Tuesday, the two stars will meet again as the Nationals begin a series at home with the Orioles. And with both on the threshold of free agency, it could be a chance for local fans to see them face off one last time in the Beltway Series.

Seven years back, both Harper and Machado were well aware their stays in the South Atlantic would not last long.

“You are hoping to move up,” Machado said that day in 2011, playing on his home field for the Shorebirds.

“I will let the higher powers figure that out,” Harper said when asked when he was being promoted. “I will do whatever they want me to do.”

“Right now, he is a Hagerstown Sun,” Nationals executive Doug Harris said that day.

The following April, Harper was in the majors. A few weeks later, Machado was called up to the Orioles from Double-A Bowie.

The three-game series this week may be the last time the two are on opposing sides in the Beltway Series — unless the Nationals stun the baseball world and sign Machado while Baltimore turns the game on its ear and inks Harper after this season.

That, of course, is not likely to happen.

The Orioles shortstop, after several years at third, is almost certainly in the closing weeks of his run in Baltimore.

The Orioles have fallen apart and has the worst record in the majors.

They may start trading away potential free agents like Machado, Adam Jones and Zach Britton to help strengthen a farm system that, according to many scouts, is bare.

There is a far better chance that Harper would re-sign with the Nationals, who are seeking their fifth division title since 2012.

Harper led the National League in homers with 19 through Sunday, though his average had fallen to .217. Machado is hitting .310 with 18 homers going into the series in Washington.

Each player has his detractors, despite the lofty numbers.

After an anonymous National League executive said in a FanRag story last week that Harper was an “over-rated, selfish, losing player,” Washington general manager Mike Rizzo was quick to defend his star.

“First of all, the premise is entirely wrong,” Rizzo told the Washington Post. “Bryce Harper is a winner. He’s been a winner his whole life … This guy has done nothing but been a tremendous advocate for the Washington Nationals — between the lines, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and in the community.”

Machado has appeared nonchalant at times.

“It was a little boring to watch it,” Machado said last summer while watching the All-Star Game. “I don’t know how people go out there and watch games. Now I know why sometimes people don’t come to games.”

Orioles’ fans certainly haven’t been coming to games in large numbers this season, and for good reason.

But there was certainly plenty of attention paid to the superstars early in their pro careers.

Among those at that All-Star game in 2011 was Earl Weaver, the Orioles former Hall of Fame manager.

That day Weaver, who led the Orioles to World Series wins in 1970 and 1979, was asked about Machado.

“Sign all of the shortstops you can. They are the best athletes on the team,” said Weaver, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 82.

The Earl of Baltimore noted that evening on the Eastern Shore in 2011 that Hall of Fame outfielder Mickey Mantle was once a shortstop.

Of course, Harper’s father was a big fan of Mantle, the former Yankee great.

Whether Harper or Machado ends up with the Yankees, or any other team, by next season should be entertaining drama.

This week, they’re both playing at Nationals Park.

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