Weeks before the annual ritual of jogging down the orange carpet in front of a sellout crowd — before the loud ovation Nick Markakis received during his pre-game introduction — there was the isolation of those back fields in Sarasota. Doing routine tasks — running sprints, taking swings and chasing fly balls — the Orioles right fielder steadily learned to regain trust in his body.
“And it all leads up to Opening Day,” Markakis said. “That’s what we were shooting for.”
Markakis, determined to dictate his recovery from offseason surgery to repair multiple abdominal tears, focused solely on being in the lineup for Opening Day. And on Friday afternoon, the longest-tenured player on the Orioles’ 25-man roster — and one of the most durable players in the game — made his sixth straight Opening Day start.
No stranger to the hoopla, Markakis then provided the dramatics.
With his first swing of the regular season, Markakis answered any questions about his health, hitting an opposite-field home run in his first at-bat. It was the beginning of a three-RBI day for Markakis in the Orioles’ 4-2 Opening Day win over the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards.
“It’s very apropos,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Let’s keep in mind why Nick had that problem. Nick had that problem because of the way he plays the game, because of the constant pounding and the diving and things he does to separate himself from most right fielders.”
Markakis said he never doubted he’d be in the Orioles’ starting lineup on Opening Day, and after the win, he said this opener would go down as one of his most memorable.
“I can say that out of seven seasons, this is probably my best start to the season,” Markakis said. “It’s a very humbling game and you want to go out there and play 100 percent every day. This game can come back and bite you real quick if you get out there and be lackadaisical. We’re going to build on this.”
Combined with a sparkling pitching performance from right-handed starter Jake Arrieta — who threw seven shutout innings — the Orioles kicked off a season-long celebration of Camden Yards’ 20th anniversary by giving their long-suffering fans a new slice of Oriole Park history.
In Friday’s pre-game introductions, the fans showed their appreciation for Markakis, giving him one of the loudest ovations.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Markakis said. “I’ve said it a thousand times before: we have the greatest fans in baseball, and I really do believe that. I think we owe a lot to the fans in the past years and we’re going to do our best to do what they want.”
And Markakis gave the announced sellout crowd of 46,773 fans something to cheer about in his first at-bat against Twins starter Carl Pavano in the bottom of the first, taking a 1-0 hanging curveball the opposite way into the left-field stands to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
Markakis became the first Oriole to homer on Opening Day since Luis Matos did it off then-A’s lefty Barry Zito on April 4, 2005.
More important to Orioles fans was that Markakis’ homer was his first true opposite-field home run in three years — he hit three to left in 2008 — and just his 12th to left in 105 career home runs, an early indicator that he’s regained his power.
“This game isn’t the easiest game in the world,” Markakis said. “You go out there and put your work in and get your stuff done and the game will reward you.”
Markakis missed his second homer of the afternoon by just a few feet in the sixth inning, this time pulling a ball to the right that was misplayed by Twins right fielder Ryan Doumit, hit off the fence and ricocheted into center field. Markakis landed on third with an RBI triple that put the Orioles up 4-0.
“He busted his tail to get where he is,” Arrieta said. “He took his time to make sure he was 100 percent ready to go for Opening Day today. Very happy for him to see where he’s at right now. [He looks] very comfortable at the plate, looks great physically. He’s right where we need him to be at this point in time.”
Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Arrieta, the youngest Orioles’ Opening Day starter since 25-year-old Mike Mussina started the 1994 opener, did his part to shut down the Twins, holding Minnesota to two hits. Arrieta faced the minimum amount of batters through the first three innings and didn’t allow a base runner past second.