LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Though he gained a lot of respect from his teammates last year, showing an unselfish determination to provide consistency to the Braves' offense, Nick Markakis exited the season frustrated by the fact an offseason neck surgery had prevented him from regaining his normal strength.
But now that Markakis has had a chance to experience an uninterrupted offseason that included normal preseason preparations, he has returned to the Braves feeling stronger and confident that this year will be different. The veteran right fielder displayed some of his regained strength via a long home run that he sent over the right-center-field wall during Saturday's 9-6 loss to the Pirates at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex.
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"Any homer feels good," Markakis said. "I'm just up there trying to see balls and get my timing. Timing is a big issue in spring. It's coming a little quicker than usual. That's a good thing. It's all positive. I'm looking forward to the rest of this spring and the beginning of the season."
Markakis' solo shot off Pirates left-hander Steven Brault soared over the right-field fence and bounced off the tall yellow brick wall approximately 400 feet from home plate. Though the distance was impressive, the 32-year-old right fielder was simply happy to go deep off of a left-hander. Just one of the 14 homers he hit over the past two seasons have come against a southpaw.
"He put a charge in that one," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He feels good. This is what we wanted. He's never going to be a guy who hits you 35 home runs. But he's a guy who can give you double-digit home runs. He's healthy, and he had a whole offseason to get stronger. I think we're going to see a different type of Markakis this year."
Markakis is certainly in a much better place than he was at this time last year, when he was still recovering from the neck surgery he had a couple weeks after signing a four-year, $44 million deal with the Braves. The veteran outfielder did not begin taking batting practice until the second half of March, and he ended up playing just eight Grapefruit League games.
Though Markakis ranked fourth in the National League with 181 hits and led all qualified Braves with a .746 OPS, the two-time Gold Glove Award winner's limited power was displayed via his arm strength and the fact that he hit just three homers, marking the first time in his career that he produced a single-digit figure in this category.
"It was kind of show-and-go in spring and then strap it on," Markakis said. "It was a tough season for me, physically and mentally. It was probably one of my tougher seasons last year as far as feeling wise. I'm just happy to be healthy and I'm happy to be out here. I'm happy with the way the spring is going and we're working to get into the season.
"Any time you have surgery, especially neck surgery, it's tough. You kind of need your neck to play the game. It was just an unfortunate situation. I battled through it. I'm here. I'm stronger and that's all that really matters to me."