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Markakis stronger, motivated heading into 2014

Coming off worst season of career, right fielder dedicated offseason to getting fit

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Twice a week, hours before the Orioles have to be at the Ed Smith Stadium complex for team stretch, a bulked up Nick Markakis is at Pilates. Baltimore's longtime right fielder started the regimen last year during the baseball season, but he got really intense about it -- among other things -- this winter and is now a regular at 6 a.m. ET class, which he upped to three times a week starting Monday.

The focus is on core strength and balance, two key components of an offseason like Markakis has never had before, one that had him pounding the pavement of his driveway with teammate Ryan Flaherty for workouts just two weeks after the Orioles' season had ended and weighing in 16 pounds heavier this spring.

Coming off the worst season of his career, Markakis is confident he has never been this strong, not even close. The 30-year-old, who was an American League Gold Glove finalist despite his struggles at the plate, is well aware that this is a contract year, with a looming $17.5 million 2015 club option that, if declined, would make Markakis a free agent for the first time in his career.

Yet all Markakis, who was sidelined during the Orioles' 2012 playoff run after a CC Sabathia pitch ended his season, wants from his offseason regime is to be able to stay on the field.

"I'm at the point in my career where a lot of things don't matter to me right now besides winning the World Series with this group of guys and this team right now," said Markakis, who would get a $2 million buyout if the Orioles don't pick up his option at season's end. "Because I don't know what the future holds for me, this could be my last year in an Orioles uniform. And I'd rather win a World Series, bring a World Series to Baltimore and this organization. I don't want to do it anywhere else. This is the team I came up with, this is the team that pretty much raised me. This is my family."

The grizzled veteran is determined to come back strong. After three surgeries in nine months between 2012-13, he was slowed with a neck injury during Spring Training last year. However, he went on to play 160 games, the fourth time in the past five seasons he's hit the 160-game mark. Talk to any player in any Major League clubhouse about what kind of grit that takes and their expression says all you need to know.

"It's damn near impossible to be out there every day," said center fielder Adam Jones. "He was fortunate enough to be healthy until the last couple years, when he got his hamate [bone] broke from Sabathia -- which we are still [angry] about. It's a testament. I looked at his numbers, [and] that pushes me to go out there and play every day. You've seen over the last six years, center field and right field, you can pencil us in. We take pride in that."

What doesn't invoke much pride is Markakis' .271/.329/.356 batting line, including 10 homers, career lows in every major offensive category but RBIs. He drove in 59 runs last season, only five more than his injury shortened (104 games) campaign in 2012 and made no bones about it when asked with growing frequency by the media: It was the worst year of his career.

So 10 days after cleaning out his locker to end the season, Markakis first got a hold of Flaherty to start plotting out workouts.

The emphasis was on adding strength and speed, with Olympic lifts and a lot of the same programming Markakis -- like many other Orioles -- adopted under vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson's fitness overhaul. Athletic trainers Joe Hogarty and Ryan Crotin would come for the workout sessions at Markakis' Monkton, Md., home, with the group switching to Camden Yards later in the winter as more of the players started to filter in.

There were no breaks, even for the holidays. When Flaherty, who is dating Markakis' sister-in-law came to North Carolina for the family Thanksgiving, the pair were in the gym for "hours," said Christina Markakis. "And they didn't miss a day."

In Markakis' mind, he had already been robbed of too many.

"I felt like I was behind," Markakis said of the need to start training at the end of last season. "In my eyes, I was a year to a year-and-a-half behind, strength-wise, to most people and to where I wanted to be. I needed to get a head start."

Markakis, who typically loses 10 pounds during the season, also enlisted the team's chef, Jenny Spiliadis, to help him eat clean, and she dropped off food twice a week. It wasn't about hitting a specific number on the scale but adding "good weight" to put him back where he needed to be strength-wise.

"Obviously he's put on some muscle," said Flaherty, who is competing for the club's second-base job this spring. "He's in a much better place right now than he's been in for a long time. I think just by looking at him you can tell he's motivated."

Or by watching him swing. It was a recent batting practice session that hitting coach Jim Presley noticed a difference in Markakis, who was sending the ball sailing out of the park. Presley took notice.

"After all those surgeries, he noticed he didn't have the strength in his legs or his upper body," Presley said. "So he went out and got after it. And he looks good. He's going to be ready to go."

Markakis is not going to be relied upon as the Orioles' power source, particularly in such a dangerous lineup, nor does anyone expect him to become the club's home run leader. The question of his disappearing power has followed Markakis throughout his career, even when he's hitting well. After going deep 23 times in 2007, he hit 20 in 2008, 18 in '09, 12 in '10, 15 in '11, 13 in '12 and just 10 last season. But no one has questioned how much the quiet veteran wants the Orioles to win or what a healthy Markakis could do to bolster the lineup.

"With him, it's got nothing to do with contract," manager Buck Showalter said. "He'd be doing the same thing [this winter] whether he just signed a five-year deal or not. It's the first time he's really been able to do these things physically. Nick's a guy that's so easy to trust. He's a good father, a good husband, a good teammate. He's a guy who is not going to embarrass you off the field, but he doesn't take himself too seriously.

"He's a guy that's real easy to pull for, because substance is his style so much. He's got the respect of other people in the game, too. They look at him and go, "I don't know if I could do that.'"

Markakis' words have always been few and far between. He won't fill up a reporter's notebooks like Chris Davis, interact on social media like Jones or show his humor, which teammates and Showalter attest is there, publicly the way guys like Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day seem to. But there's no denying his importance in the fabric of the team, everywhere from the clubhouse games -- some of which he quietly purchased -- to the anger that still simmers over the ill-fated Sabathia pitch.

"He is what a veteran is supposed to be," Flaherty said. "He's been through it all here, and when he speaks, everyone listens. He's not full of a lot of words, but when he has something to say, it's meaningful. If you want an example of how it's supposed to be done, just watch him play and go about his business every day. That's how the game is supposed to be played."

Markakis won't let himself think too much about his future with the Orioles. If it becomes emotional, it will make things tougher to do on the field. Instead, Markakis is of the mindset that if he plays the way he knows he can, that will take care of itself.

"I don't feel [ticked] off," Markakis said of his mindset this spring. "I feel eager to get the season started. I think I'm more motivated. I'm probably more than 100 percent healthy. It's the best I've felt, and I think that will really take me a long way."

"You can see it in his eyes every day," Showalter said of Markakis' singular focus of winning this season. "It's like Jim Johnson or Brian Roberts or whoever, it's sad to think about that [him leaving]. I don't want that to happen, nobody does. But I think Nick kind of controls that, as much as other things. ... You look up sincere in the dictionary and put his name by it. It's real. There's no pretense."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.
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