Of all the Orioles hungry for success, none may be more driven to see Baltimore return to the playoffs and perform well on the big stage than Nick Markakis, a nine-year veteran of the club who has never played in a postseason game.
As most Orioles fans are aware, it was a cruel twist of fate that struck Markakis down just a few weeks prior to the 2012 playoff run, which was the first time the O's had reached the postseason since 1997. That fateful day came on Sept. 8 at Camden Yards, as Markakis wore an inside pitch from CC Sabathia on the hand, fracturing his thumb. The injury not only left Markakis devastated, but it also devastated Orioles fans that had grown to love their most consistent player since making he made his debut in 2006.
Between 2006 and 2011, Markakis strung together six seasons of fantastic individual performances, despite playing in a team which won just 406 of 971 games (.418). During this period, Markakis owned a .295 average and .365 on-base percentage, often coming up big in the clutch with runners on base, as highlighted by his 495 RBIs. Not only was he patient at the plate, but he also posed a threat with the longball, hitting 104 home runs. Despite this production, which often found him placed in multiple top 10 offensive categories, he was never rewarded with an All-star selection; however, he did manage to win a Gold Glove for his impressive performances in right field during the 2011 season.
The next two seasons, however, were full of frustration for Markakis, as he played just 104 games during 2012 due to multiple injuries and continued to suffer from lingering effects of those injuries during 2013. Despite the frustrations, his numbers were still more than respectable despite being low in comparison to his high career standards.
* 2012: .298/.363/.834, 13 home runs, 54 RBIs
* 2013: .271/.329/.685, 10 home runs, 59 RBIs
By the conclusion of the 2013 season, Markakis had been overtaken as the most consistent and most feared hitter in the Orioles lineup. The new and improved lineup, consisting of powerful hitters such as Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Manny Machado, ensured the offensive spotlight was no longer on Markakis and the amount of media attention he received dropped. For a quiet, humble guy like Markakis, this didn't faze him in the slightest.
With no playoff berth forthcoming in 2013, this meant a slightly longer rest during the offseason and by the time spring training 2014 arrived, Markakis appeared to be as healthy as ever. He received quite a bit of attention in the media in March, having reported to camp in great shape and being 16 lbs. heavier than he was a year prior. Was this increase in muscle mass going to help ensure the Markakis of old returned? Absolutely.
Throughout spring training, Markakis was one of the Orioles' most consistent performers. His slash line of .356/.370/.970 in 13 games was impressive and he also recorded eight extra-base hits (six doubles, a triple and a home run), which indicated his power had returned. That impressive form during spring has continued into the regular season and through 37 games, Markakis owns a line of .301/.357/.749, with nine extra-base hits (six doubles, a triple and two home runs). Most importantly, his hitting has come consistently and not in bursts, as seen by his recent 18-game hitting streak.
Furthermore, his value as the leadoff hitter has been crucial to the Orioles' success. Leading off innings, Markakis is hitting .368 with an on-base percentage of .400; however, this figure is even more impressive when leading off in the first inning, where his average and on-base percentage are both .419. With such a powerful lineup, including the likes of Machado, Jones, Davis, Nelson Cruz and Matt Wieters, Markakis is perfectly suited to lead off for the Orioles and let the big hitters advance him around the bags.
The season is almost a quarter of the way through and all signs thus far indicate that Markakis is set for a big season. For the sake of both he and Birdland, one can only hope he remains healthy and can continue this momentum in hopes that he achieves that long-awaited and well-earned playoff appearance. Once that's been achieved, anything is possible with these Orioles.
Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @DC_TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.