Markakis hits stride

After struggling early, facing possible demotion, confident rookie now is flirting with .300


They watched Nick Markakis closely, looking to see if more than a month of struggles at baseball's highest level had damaged his psyche. Any visual evidence that failure had gotten to the prized rookie, perhaps something as simple as slumped shoulders or a heaved helmet, and Markakis might have been headed to the minors.

Not once, however, did the 22-year-old's seemingly endless supply of confidence noticeably drop. He responded to bad at-bats by quietly retreating to the video room to pinpoint what he had just done wrong. He responded to bad games by coming to the park early the next day to take batting practice with Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley.

"He stayed tough as long as anybody I've ever worked with," said Crowley, a 20-year major league hitting coach. "He battled and battled. He accepted his 0-for's. Not that he was happy about it, but he continued to work ... day in and day out, and now it all seems to be coming together."

In the midst of playing out what will be the team's ninth straight losing season barring a major turnaround, Markakis is giving Orioles fans hope at a time when it is in short supply. With every diving catch, with every well-struck base hit, Markakis is justifying the hype that has followed the organization's top offensive prospect.

Markakis surprised many by making the Orioles, thanks to a torrid spring training, but after hitting .182 in April and raising his average to just .228 by late June, the whispers that the outfielder belonged in the minors had gotten louder. Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo admitted recently that the club gave Markakis a three-week window before the All-Star break to raise his average, and if he didn't, he most likely would have started the second half of the season in the minors.

All Markakis has done since June 28 is bat .412, hitting safely in 22 of 28 games over that time with 11 multi-hit games and three four-hit games.

"For a guy his age to go through the struggles he went through early on, but to continue to work, continue to battle, continue to play hard, it's something you like to see," said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "I don't think any of us expected him to pick it up the way he has. It's pretty amazing to see where he is now."

After last night's 0-for-3, Markakis' average is .294. He admits his flirtation with the .300 mark was tough to envision several weeks ago.

"It's hit me and then again it hasn't," Markakis said. "It will probably hit me later this season when I realize all that I went through. ... It's funny because it feels like in my other minor league seasons, I got off to a slow start. It's just about getting comfortable."

Markakis said that getting sent down was something "always in the back of your mind" and that he had to "work through it." He had the support of his teammates, including Melvin Mora, who said that he talked to several team officials to express his support for the rookie.

"I heard a lot of rumors that he needs to go back to Triple-A for a while," Mora said. "But what I told everybody and even Terry Crowley is when you see a guy that has a swing to the opposite field like he does, why are you going to send him down? This guy has one of the best swings that we have. You need to give him a chance.

"This is a young guy," Mora added. "He needs to hear positive things, be around positive guys. I told him to go out there and not take so many pitches and swing at the pitches you think you can drive. ... He did it by himself. He just started hitting."

The Orioles haven't had much of a choice but to stick with Markakis. Injuries to Luis Matos, David Newhan and Jay Gibbons left the club short-handed in the outfield. When Gibbons went out, Markakis moved over to right field, the position he is most familiar with, and he has helped solidify the club's outfield defense. He said that being more comfortable defensively has helped his offense.

Under the watchful eye of Crowley, Markakis has altered his stance slightly, lowering his hands after he felt that he was getting under the ball too much. He has also been encouraged by Mora and Miguel Tejada to be more aggressive at the plate, rather than watching too many fastballs go by early in the count. Earlier in the season, pitchers were consistently getting in on Markakis' hands with an inside fastball, but he has made the needed adjustments.

Despite having only four home runs and 30 RBIs, Markakis has also been hitting the ball with a lot more authority lately, although he says that his power numbers are the last thing he is thinking about. Most scouts think that the left-hander will be the type of hitter to average 20 to 25 home runs a season over his career.

"He was still learning how to hit and you cannot hit home runs until you learn how to hit," Crowley said. "He has plenty of power. He shows us every day in batting practice that the fence is no problem. But that will come along later."

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