Deflecting attention, Markakis appreciated nonetheless
BALTIMORE -- It is just after the Orioles' stunning ninth-inning comeback win at Fenway Park on Wednesday night and right fielder Nick Markakis -- who hit a solo homer and had two RBIs in the 8-5 win -- is nowhere to be found in the visitors' clubhouse.
He is not the star of this game -- that would be Manny Machado, who hit the go-ahead homer -- and Markakis rarely is sitting in front of his locker even if he is. There are postgame workouts to get in and treatment to receive, the latter of which Markakis finally appears from in Boston and unassumingly sits on the couch, more than happy to fade into the background of reporters' game stories and be overshadowed by the flashier players and more-quotable personalities.
It is the same thing at home, when Markakis -- the Orioles' longest-tenured active player -- has two hits and two runs scored in the home opening-win and follows that with a 4-for-5 night that includes two doubles. It isn't that he's purposely avoiding interviews -- a job he's more than willing to let center fielder Adam Jones claim -- so much as Markakis simply doesn't want the credit, a fact that extends beyond the baseball field and into the clubhouse, where the players frequent the pool and ping-pong table, both quietly purchased by Markakis.
"He's one of the most giving guys around, but it's not broadcasted," manager Buck Showalter said. "He just doesn't want anyone to know about it. Probably about half the stuff [he does], I don't know about."
"He's such a great example. Nick takes the responsibility of being there, of posting up, very seriously. And, believe me, he's one of those guys that teammates don't want to disappoint."
Jones may be the vocal leader, the convivial Chris Davis the resident power hitter, and catcher Matt Wieters the anchor of the pitching staff. But it is Markakis who is the heart of the team, a hard-nosed player -- coming off a calendar year in which he had three surgeries in less than nine months -- who teammates and coaches alike gush about, and as Wieters dryly remarked, won't be happy to see a story focused on him.
"He's just one of those really good ballplayers that not a lot of people know," Orioles closer Jim Johnson said of Markakis, who entered this season a career .295 hitter in seven Major League seasons. "Other pitchers know who he is, I'll tell you that. They hate facing him. And when you have respect from your peers, I think that's all you can really ask for in this game."
Wieters said Markakis' natural ability to hit is "baffling" to him, how the right fielder can go 4-for-5 one night, decide to change his stance, and go 3-for-4 the next. Jones, who still looks up to Markakis, said watching No. 21 suit up and play every day with no excuses had helped fuel his own drive for durability.
"You don't see very many guys tough physically and mentally like he is," hitting coach Jim Presley said of Markakis, who had his first career disabled list stint last May for a right hamate bone fracture that required surgery.
"His swing is so flat, and it's just a simple flat through the zone, he doesn't have to do a lot to get to the ball. The thing that he really does well is a ball that's away, he's going to shoot that ball past the third baseman. He did it again the past two or three days, and you just can't teach that. But he is a rare [natural hitter], he's that good."
The 29-year-old Markakis played in at least 157 games from 2007-11, eclipsing the 160-game mark in four of those five seasons. Prior to the hamate bone surgery, Markakis worked his tail off to be ready for Opening Day 2012, rehabbing aggressively from offseason abdominal surgery -- an injury he played through at the end of '11 -- before he had an operation on his hand on June 1.
Markakis returned July 13, hitting in the leadoff spot for the first time in his career and batting .335/.390/.489 with 34 runs scored, 15 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 28 RBIs. With the highest average and OPS since 2008, Markakis was on track for a career year just as the Orioles -- one of the best stories in baseball -- were in the playoff hunt for the first time in 15 seasons.
That all changed Sept. 8 when Markakis suffered a season-ending injury, breaking his left thumb on a wayward fastball from Yankees ace CC Sabathia, an incident that didn't sit well in the Orioles' dugout.
"It wasn't like we were thinking it hurts the team, even though it did. But everybody hurt for Nicky, because we knew how much that meant to him," Showalter said of Markakis, who was drafted by Baltimore in 2003. "Very quietly, [he] never said it. But he's one of those guys that got his nose bloodied with the organization. He loves the Orioles. He's been with the organization from the get-go, and to have a chance to [play in the postseason] ...
"You know what? It was about a day or two thing, and by the way he handled it, it kind of picked everybody back up. I was looking at the picture, some film from the last out [of the American League Wild Card win] in Texas. One of the first guys on the field was Nicky."
Markakis addressed the team shortly after the injury, encouraging his teammates to pick him up with the hope that he could return for a deep playoff run. Baltimore went on to post a 93-69 season, advancing to the AL Division Series before losing to New York, and sure enough, Showalter got a phone call at home during the World Series. It was Markakis. "Just to let you know," he told his manager, "I would have been ready."
"As a young player, I'd look up to him just based off his work ethic," outfield/first-base coach Wayne Kirby said of Markakis, who he calls a "quiet assassin" at the plate. "He takes pride in his team. That's the big separator: he cares."
Markakis rehabbed back from a herniated disk in his neck to be ready for this year's Opening Day, and is hitting .294/.345/.451 through 12 games, rotating in the lineup's top three spots. He will tell you he's a quick healer. Others say he just approaches injuries the same way he digs in to the batter's box.
"People miss how competitive he is," Showalter said. "Getting in there [Friday] night against Sabathia again, and it's four degrees. This guy, you don't know if he knows where the ball is going. Did you see him bail at all? I can't tell you how hard that is to do what he did.
"And he got a base hit off him to left field [in the eighth inning]. You got to stay over the plate to do that. The reason he got hit with the fastball is Sabathia knows he hangs in on the breaking ball. He doesn't budge. Sometimes I think he goes unappreciated, and he likes it that way. He's a rock. One of those guys when you start putting things together, you put his name there and you can count on him. That's rare."
"To be able to not see him there at the end of last year, it hurt," added Wieters. "He's been through tough times more than anybody. And hopefully we will be able to go even further for him this year. He's a guy who has been there for the bad times, been there for the good times. He's just that consistent force."
No longer in any pain in regards to his neck, Markakis still gets treatment on the area. He is smarter now about taking care of his body, adding that to a pregame regimen that starts around 1 p.m. and includes a lot of early work, video watching and -- after the team's batting practice -- a period where he sits down and gets his mind ready for that night. Gone are the days when Markakis had to police things, when he was the only threat in the lineup and one of a handful of true competitors in the Orioles' clubhouse. Now, it is easier to blend into the background, a role he has always preferred.
"It's completely different," Markakis said of the organization. "We have depth. We have a great group of guys top to bottom in the lineup, our pitching staff, everybody is a gamer. It's just completely different than it was four, five years ago."
And Markakis says he is different, as well.
"It's just experience," he said of evolving as a player. "The more you are out there, the more you realize certain things and know what you can and can't do."
It isn't much of the latter.
"I know the last few years people said, 'He's not doing this or that [in regards to home runs],' but he amazes me every single day," Jones said. "He can go 0-for-4, and there's something I pick out that's just amazing about how he approaches the game. It's not easy to hit the ball in general, but the way he approaches hitting is unbelievable."