Markakis And Arrieta Show Their Wounds Are Resolved
By Matt Palmer
Three hours before the first pitch of the 2012 season April 6, Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis was getting ready in the clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Although he had been part of six Opening Day games during his career, this one was different.
Markakis wasn't guaranteed the moment, even as late as mid-March. He spent much of the winter recovering from abdominal surgery for an injury suffered during the last game of the 2011 season and was sidelined for much of spring training. He had just a few at bats and chances to react defensively at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla. Much of his work was away from the eyes of curious fans.
Markakis never doubted that he was going to be in right field on Opening Day.
"You can't think like that," he said. "I had positive thoughts. I had confidence in our training staff and our coaching staff and their ability to get me back to where I need to be."
Markakis wasn't the only physical unknown the Orioles were dealing with on Opening Day. Jake Arrieta, who missed much of the second half of the 2011 season and ultimately had surgery on his elbow, was pegged as manager Buck Showalter's Opening Day starter against the Minnesota Twins.
If there is going to be a rebirth of the Orioles after 14 straight losing seasons, both Markakis and Arrieta could be critical components. The O's traded their top pitcher of the last several seasons, Jeremy Guthrie, to the Rockies. Arrieta, 26, will have to play the role of a veteran, while Markakis, 28, needs to rekindle his penchant for offensive production, which has declined during recent seasons. He won a Gold Glove last season, but some wondered whether he would lose some of his defensive ability after surgery.
By the end of the first inning of the opener, both Markakis and Arrieta showed Showalter he could breathe a little more easily. Arrieta made quick work of the Twins and gave way to Markakis, who batted third for the Birds. Jumping on the second pitch he saw, the left-handed Markakis drove a ball 375 feet to the opposite field, barely getting over the left-center wall.
"If you look at my home runs, I don't think I had an opposite-field home run last year," Markakis said afterward. "I knew I put a good swing on it. I knew I hit it good."
Showalter saw no physical rust, just vintage Markakis.
"Let's keep in mind why Nick had that problem," Showalter said, referring to the Sept. 28 game during which Markakis injured his abdominal muscle diving for a ball in right field. "Nick had that problem because of the way he plays the game, because of the constant pounding, the diving and the things he does to separate himself from most right fielders."
During the next few innings, both men played as if they had bottled up all of their energy and focus for one day. Arrieta finished with seven innings pitched, two hits and no runs allowed in earning a 4-2 win against the Twins.
"He had a real vision about what he wanted to get done in the offseason," Showalter said. "You can see it in his face how happy he is with the way his arm's working right now."
While barely using his changeup, Arrieta moved in and out, relying on a fastball in the 90-mph range and a hard-cutting slider. He also fielded the position well, snaring several comebackers that otherwise could have tested his timing.
If there were any mental blocks that might have stripped away Markakis' years of baseball instincts, they weren't showing when he was tagged out sliding into home plate on Opening Day. Showalter had to look away, but Markakis didn't blink.
"Hopefully, it's all behind me," Markakis said. "That's what spring training is for. I got my work in. I was on the back fields sliding. Everything felt good. It just happened to be the first game of the season."
Like Markakis, Arrieta played with an enthusiasm that showed he was never going to take anything for granted.
"The rehab process and the work that went along with that made it all worthwhile to cut down the recovery time as much as I could," Arrieta said, "to be able to start my throwing progression when I started, about a month before scheduled. I wanted to be ready for this day and being able to be on the mound 100 percent makes it all worth it."
Markakis also tripled, scored two runs and drove in three. Arrieta looked at Markakis and saw a kindred spirit.
"He busted his tail to get to where he is," Arrieta said. "He took his time to make sure he was 100 percent and ready to go for Opening Day. I'm very happy for him and to see where he's at right now. He's right where we need him to be at this point and time. So, that's going to be big for this ballclub."
Markakis said he felt the same way about Arrieta.
"He set the tone," Markakis said. "It starts with pitching. When he's throwing strikes, he's pretty good -- as good as it gets up there."
Issue 172: April 2012