Right fielder shows up every day with little fanfare, performs at high level
BALTIMORE -- Consistency is one of the most prized assets in a baseball player. Don't get too high, don't get too low. Dependability. It's one of the bedrock values of the game.
Paradoxically, though, sometimes players who simply show up every day and perform their job at a high level and don't make waves can soon be taken for granted. Players, for example, like Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis.
He's the team's longest-tenured player. He's played in every game this season. His single in the first inning of Monday's night's 4-0 win over the Red Sox at Camden Yards extended his hitting streak to 14 games; earlier this season he hit in 18 straight.
His two-run homer off Boston starter Jake Peavy in the fifth gave the O's some breathing room as they went on to win for the sixth time in their last nine games.
But he's never made the All-Star team and has been overshadowed on his own team by the prodigious power of Nelson Cruz, by 2012 and '13 All-Star Adam Jones, by the eye-catching skills of third baseman Manny Machado and even by the concern over the elbow problems that have landed catcher Matt Wieters on the disabled list.
Buck Showalter, of course, is keenly appreciative of everything his leadoff hitter adds to the mix.
"We're lucky to have him," the manager said Monday night. "Nickie's just a consistent human being. You look at him as a husband and a father and a teammate and an Oriole, and it's not surprising to anybody that he's a consistent player. He doesn't have that roller coaster of emotions but, believe me, there's a real fire burning inside him. And most of that has to do with wanting the Orioles to win."
Markakis has six homers this season. His career high is 23, so Showalter was asked if he sees signs that his power is starting to come around. The manager shrugged.
"It's the consistency thing," Showalter said. "Nick will take what they give him. He's real hard to play in the era of all the shifts and everything that's going on. Where do you play him? It's hard because you're always trying to find an advantage," he said.
"But there's not just one way to pitch him. You can't stay in all the time. You can't stay away. You can't go up. You can't stay breaking ball all the time. He goes through some periods like all of us, but you always feel like with him tomorrow is the day he'll start all over again."
Which reminded Showalter of a story from his days managing the D-backs. An amazing story, really, because to illustrate how difficult Markakis is to defend, Showalter brought up Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
"We gave up and told everybody that this guy makes a living hitting balls where people don't play as consistently as anybody who's ever played," Showalter said. "So I said that I wanted everybody to play where they've never played before. I said, 'Let's just try something else.' We put the third baseman out of position. We put the shortstop out of position. We put the outfielders out of position. Because, the way it was going, he was hitting .420 at the time. So why would you play conventional?
"It worked for one night. And the next night he got four hits."
Showalter obviously isn't suggesting that Markakis is as good as Gwynn. But one measure of his importance to the Orioles is this: In the team's 32 wins, he's hitting .352 with an .897 OPS. In the 30 losses: .264 and .689.
Markakis, naturally, discussed his impressive performance with the same emotion he might have had talking about what he'd had for lunch.
"I'm feeling good up there, but the outcome ain't going to be there sometimes," he said. "I'm seeing the ball well, putting good swings on it. I'm going to try not to change anything. Stick with the same approach. Stick with what's working. You can look back and say it's a bunch of stuff. The main thing is staying healthy. If you stay healthy and strong, especially in this game, which is such a long season, it can carry you a long ways."
He's not about to pop champagne over his hitting streak, either, even though he and Toronto's Jose Bautista are the only players in the Major Leagues with two hitting streaks of at least 12 games.
"I don't look too much into it," he said. "My job in the leadoff spot is to get on base, especially with what I've got hitting behind me. As the leadoff guy, you're looking to get on base any way you can. Walk, hit, hit by pitch, error. As long as you get on you feel like you're doing your job."
He's done his job long enough and consistently enough to have moved into the Top 10 in Orioles history in several offensive categories including hits, doubles, extra base hits, RBI and walks.
He's done it quietly, so his contributions may be underrated. But not in Baltimore's clubhouse.