Nick Markakis arrived at spring training this year wondering along with the rest of us just how long it would take for him to rebound from serious abdominal damage and re-establish himself as a major offensive force in the Orioles batting order.
The surgery he underwent in January went well, but there was no telling exactly when he would be himself again and — completely healthy or not — what anyone had a right to expect from him after two straight years of unimpressive power and run-production totals.
None of that can really be answered in one game, but Markakis came pretty close with a two-run opposite-field homer and a long RBI triple in the Orioles' 4-2 victory before an Opening Day sellout crowd Friday at Camden Yards.
Even he seemed a little surprised that he hammered a ball into the left-field bleachers off Minnesota Twins starter Carl Pavano on only the second pitch of his first regular-season at-bat, and only a few months after doctors repaired multiple muscle tears in an area that affects virtually every movement necessary to play baseball at the highest level.
"If you look at my home runs,'' Markakis said after the game, "I don't think I had an opposite-field home run last year at all."
To be precise, it was actually his first home run to left field since 2008, which was back when he hit 20 or more homers in consecutive seasons and drove in more than 100 runs twice in a three-year span. So, it's impossible to point to a single cause for the decline in his run-production in 2010 and 2011.
Was it just the series of abdominal injuries that sapped his lower body strength over the past year or so, or was it the loss of one of baseball's great table-setters (Brian Roberts) at the top of the O's lineup for much of the past two seasons?
Hitting coach Jim Presley can speak to what went on in 2011, when Markakis played with groin and hip soreness for much of the season, then aggravated the problem on a couple of plays in September — most notably the spectacular catch he made against the Boston Red Sox on the final night of the regular season.
"Last year, I think that leg bothered him more than he was letting on,'' Presley said. "A normal guy might have been on the DL a couple of times, but he played 160 games and played hurt most of the year. I've noticed since he came back to spring training after the surgery, he's healthy. He's back in the weight room. He's getting stronger. His leg is stronger."
It's not hard to extrapolate from that, and some telling comments from Markakis after the game, that he has spent at least the last year — and maybe the year before — in a frustrating quest to compensate for his physical limitations by experimenting with different approaches at the plate.
Clearly, he is very close to full strength and has figured the rest out, because he looked like a different hitter Friday, and he was obviously bouyed by the results that both he and his team realized in the uplifting victory over the Twins.
"I'd like to see myself be more consistent with my stance,'' he said. "I don't want to to go up there with 30,000 different stances throughout the season. I want to go up there with one stance in mind, focus on that and build on that. Just go with it. Go up there and get in a comfortable position and look for the ball, see the ball, hit the ball and let everything play itself out."
The Orioles and their fans can only hope this is the start of something big. If Markakis can get back to the production levels he attained from 2007 through 2009, it would make a major impact on the club's offensive potential.
Whether he suddenly morphs back into a 20-plus home run guy remains to be seen, but Presley thinks it will happen.
"This guy can hit the ball out of the ballpark,'' Presley said. "He's a .300 hitter who can hit 20 or 25 home runs and be that great No. 3 guy. He could do more than that. He could hit .275 and drop down and drive the ball and hit 30 or more, but if he can hit .300 with 20 to 25 and drive in 80 to 100, that's what you want.
"I think he's healthy now, and I think he's going to have more juice than you saw last year just by being healthy."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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