ATLANTA - Nick Markakis wouldn’t stay true to himself if he suddenly began to campaign for his inclusion on the All-Star team or felt comfortable with the Braves public relations staff doing it for him.
Messages on the scoreboard urging fans to vote for Markakis made him cringe each time he looked up and saw them. He just wants to play and let the process unfold. He’d rather pound baseballs over the plate than his own chest.
Markakis leads all National League outfielders in the latest balloting and seems poised to be included in the Mid-Summer Classic for the first time in his 13 major league seasons, the first nine spent with the Orioles. Rather than bubble over with excitement, Markakis doesn’t stray from his low-key personality that’s as much a calling card as his smooth swing.
“It’s cool, it’s an honor, because of all the hard work that you’ve done to get there,” Markakis said early this afternoon before heading to the cage at SunTrust Park for early hitting. “People recognize it. It’s definitely an honor. But my main goal and my biggest concern is winning for this team, winning as many ballgames as we can to get to where we want to get at the end of the year. That’s my main focus right now.
“All that extra-curricular stuff, it’s a bonus. It’s always a positive thing, but our main goal is to win ballgames.”
The Braves continue to do so at a surprising rate, sitting atop the NL East with a 43-30 record. Markakis is spearheading the resurgence with a .323/.387/.479 slash line in 73 games, his 93 hits tied with teammates Freddie Freeman for the NL lead. One of the rewards figures to be a trip to D.C. in the middle of July, a reasonable commute from his new home in Cockeysville.
It matters to current and former teammates, family and friends who have lamented the yearly oversights. Markakis has always downplayed the importance, has always avoided self-promotion and social media like chin-high fastballs.
“I would say that, and also my kids,” said Markakis, whose sons are 9, 8 and 5. “My kids are at the age where they realize now what’s going on. They love baseball, they know all the players and they understand the game. If I were fortunate enough to get in, I’d be more excited for my kids than anything, because you play 162 games. Four days off in the middle of the season is nice, too, to go home and relax and spend with your family.
“I think my kids will enjoy it more than anything. They understand. They play. They’re on travel teams. They know everybody. They get it now.”
Markakis should derive at least a modicum of satisfaction from crafting one of the finest seasons of his career at age 34 and in the final year of his contract. The Orioles pulled their four-year offer due to concerns about the pending disk surgery on his neck, a decision that pained him more than anything he endured after the procedure.
The Braves signed Markakis for four years and $44 million and he’s played in 156, 158 and 160 games during the first three seasons. Meanwhile, the Orioles haven’t been able to find a suitable replacement in right field and struck deals that cost them young pitching prospects Zach Davies and Steven Brault.
“I don’t know. If you go out there and sign a 10-year, $300 million contract, there’s always going to be doubters,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out and do what you’re capable of doing.”
Staying on the field hasn’t been a challenge since undergoing surgery on his neck and a fractured thumb and enduring procedures to remove a broken hamate bone and repair a torn abdominal muscle.
“From 2012 to ‘15, I had four surgeries,” he said. “It’s tough to come back, especially the first year, when I came back here in ‘15. It’s tough when you’re not able to do anything. But the last couple of years I’ve been healthy, I’ve been able to get myself where I want to be, and being with these guys over here, they’ve helped me out a lot, too. It’s not just one person doing it. Everybody is helping each other and making each other better.”
Coming to the ballpark each day enables Markakis to hang out with brother-in-law and former Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty. They were in the same early hitting group this afternoon.
“It’s awesome,” Markakis said. “He’s been through a lot. For him to come over here and then start out the way he did was awesome. He’s a baseball player. He gets his role and he’s good at it.”
Markakis and Orioles manager Buck Showalter spoke on the field earlier in the day. They’ve stayed in contact since Markakis played his last game with the club in 2014. The respect only grows over the years.
The All-Star came probably came up in conversation today.
“”I’ve got to tell you, knowing Nick, it’s OK if he spends the time with his family,” Showalter said. “I don’t think Nick needs that, but he certainly would consider it an honor and he’d be happy to do it. But I know what Nick puts into a season and at this point I don’t think he’s got to show anybody how good he is.
“He’s a special player and I think everybody is happy that he’s had success and continue the reputation that he’s had. That old country music song, ‘Who’s going to fill their shoes?’ The game of baseball, it’s going to be hard to fill not just on the field but off the field and in the clubhouse, just the whole culture that he brings. I know it’s meant a lot to the Braves. They’re lucky to have him.”
They gambled that the surgery wouldn’t impact his career, and his .866 OPS this season is the second-highest that he’s posted in the majors.
“Health, that’s the big thing,” he said. “I’ve put myself in position to play every day.”
In typical Markakis fashion, he moves the spotlight away from himself and shines it on other players, on the group instead of the individual. He always does it seamlessly in interviews.
“To play with this group of guys, the young talent that we have, we play well together as a team,” he said. “We feed off each other and we all put ourselves in positions for that next guy to be successful. Whether it’s walk, hit, we’re not a team that’s going to go out there and hit a ton of homers, but we’re going to get on base, we’re going to get runners over, and we’re going to do the little things. We’re going to feed off that. We each make ourselves better throughout the lineup.”
The Orioles are on the opposite side, and not just at the ballpark. They still hold the worst record in the majors, bringing back disturbing memories for Markakis. He lived through some of the darkest days in Baltimore beginning in 2006.
“In the baseball world, it’s always on TV, especially in the clubhouse,” he said. “I’ve been there. It’s tough. But you still have a job to do. You’ve got to go out there and do what you get paid for, and I’ve been through it here, too, early on.
“‘15-‘16 were tough, ‘17 got better and here we are in ‘18. Things can happen in the course of a year. You’ve just got to continue with your mindset, stay focused and keep going.”
With perhaps a stop in D.C. next month.
* Showalter wrote Chris Davis’ name into the lineup for the first time since June 11.
“Just like we said, it was probably going to happen here,” he said. “Felt like now is the time. Ready to go.”
The mental break could prove as beneficial to Davis as anything he did in the cage.
“I think there’s two sides to that, too,” Showalter said. “Chris really wanted to play. It was tough on him. You see your teammates out there playing, that was tough for him. But I know he’s looking forward to this day.
“There will be some subtle things maybe, but most of it, it’s just a break and just trying to get a consistent approach and stay with it. It’s not a one day, two day, three days. It’s an approach over the, some things he really wants to stay with and try to understand what made him successful and can again.”
Showalter was waiting for an update on Trey Mancini, who took some swings today to check whether the stiffness in his neck had lessened.
“Better, better,” Showalter said. “I just got through talking to him. It looks like he took some dry swings and he’s going to take ... Unfortunately not on the field. They banged that (due to rain), but he’s potentially available as a pinch-hitter. But I wouldn’t commit to that yet.”
Third baseman Tim Beckham is eligible to come off the disabled list on Saturday, but is expected to remain on his injury rehab assignment until Monday.
“I think the plan is Monday back home,” Showalter said. “Depending on how he feels and looks the next couple of days.”
First pitch is anticipated for 7:45 p.m.
Update II: The Orioles scored six runs in the top of the ninth to take a 7-3 lead, with Davis’ sacrifice fly breaking a 3-3 tie, but the Braves scored four runs off Zach Britton and we’re headed to the 10th.
Darren O’Day got a strikeout and fly ball to prevent the Braves from winning in regulation.