After nine seasons with the Orioles, outfielder Nick Markakis is running into all kinds of firsts with the Atlanta Braves, none more challenging than facing two of the baseball’s best lefties - Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner - for the first time on the same road trip.
Markakis, a left-handed batter, had a single and double against Kershaw, the Dodgers’ three-time National League Cy Young Award winner. A few days later, Markakis went 0-for-3 with two fly balls and a grounder against Bumgarner, San Francisco’s World Series MVP last season.
So who is tougher?
“I’d rather face Kershaw,’’ Markakis said Thursday before the Braves finished their series against the Nationals in Washington, D.C. “Both are hard to hit. Both have great stuff. But Kershaw is easier to pick up. His delivery is not as funky as Bumgarner’s. Most lefties, I think, would say that.’‘
Markakis, 31, who signed a four-year $44 million contract with the Braves on Dec. 5 and two weeks later had surgery to fix a herniated disc in his neck, is doing well as part of the Braves’ new-look lineup that includes Cameron Maybin and Jace Peterson.
The Braves are less reliant on power. Their on-base percentage has soared and their strikeouts have dipped. And they are on pace to score more runs than they did last season when they had Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis and Justin Upton in the lineup.
“This is working well,’’ Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says. “Last year, we’d get a double, strikeout and a fly ball. Now, we get base hit, base hit, base hit - we keep the line moving. The only time I miss a home run is when we are two or three runs behind.’‘
Markakis, who has batted leadoff at the start of the season and has since moved to the middle of the order, came into Thursday’s game hitting .333 with a .414 on-base percentage during June. And Markakis had 398 consecutive error-free games in the outfield, a major league record. Darren Lewis held the record since 1994, going 392 games.
The error-free streak came to an end on Thursday when the Nationals’ Denard Span singled to right and Markakis bobbled the ball, allowing Span to make second base.
“What impresses me is the way Nick handles himself,’’ Gonzalez says. “I enjoy the consistency. Whether he’s 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, he’s the same guy. I appreciate that.
“His defense is solid. When he was breaking that record, he never made a bad throw to the wrong base. He’s diving for balls. He’s always leaving his feet.’‘
Markakis takes a low-key approach to the feat: “I never thought much about it. It’s just doing my job. I catch the ball and throw it to the proper base.’‘
Markakis misses his friends in Baltimore and playing for the Orioles, but he playing in Atlanta means going home. His parents live in Atlanta, his three brothers in the area. He grew up a Braves fan going to Fulton County Stadium to watch Chipper and Andruw Jones, Fred McGriff and David Justice. Markakis wears No. 22 because No. 21, the number he wore as an Oriole, is retired in honor of Hall of Famer Warren Spahn.
Markakis likes the National League better than the American League. He says the NL game is quicker with more double-switch strategy. He doesn’t miss the DH.
“I’d say do away with the DH,’’ Markakis says. “You should have to be a complete player and bat when it is your turn.’‘
He hit .258 with a home run for the Orioles in the postseason against Detroit and Kansas City in 2014, the only time he has played in October. He’d gone through the Orioles’ lean years and missed the 2013 playoffs because of injury. Markakis was ready to help the Orioles advance beyond the American League Championship Series.
“But it didn’t work out,’’ Markakis says. “It’s tough. Last year, things didn’t work out the way we wanted, but we gave it everything we had.’‘