To say the Orioles can’t overcome the loss of Nick Markakis to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years would discredit everything they’ve accomplished in an amazing season.
Being tied for first place in the American League East with only 23 games remaining is an enviable position to hold, regardless of any injury or loss a team could possibly experience.
Yes, the Orioles will get by without their starting right fielder and leadoff hitter — who will miss the rest of the regular season and only has a slim chance of returning late in the postseason should the Orioles reach that point — but whether they can do better than that is the critical question. And they’ll need to if they want to win their first division title since 1997 or at least secure one of the league’s two wild-card spots.
“We’ve been a sum of the parts team all year,” manager Buck Showalter said following the game, “and we certainly lost a big part [Saturday night].”
There’s no downplaying how important Markakis has been to a second half in which the Orioles have gone 33-21 since the 28-year-old returned from hamate bone surgery that forced him to miss six weeks in June and early July. Finally providing the club with its first productive leadoff hitter in two years, Markakis had been the club’s most valuable player in the second half as he hit .335 with five home runs, 15 doubles, 28 runs batted in, and a .387 on-base percentage since returning to action on July 13.
Showalter turned to Markakis to handle the top spot in the order because he had no other options, and the Orioles are faced with the same dilemma for the final few weeks of the season. The club will likely turn to left fielder Nate McLouth to assume the No. 1 spot. The journeyman has surprisingly hit .273 with a .341 on-base percentage in 32 games since having his contract selected from Triple-A Norfolk, but expected him to continue that production — especially in the top spot of the order — is a lot to ask.
Though the lineup was far from ideal even with Markakis, having his bat in the leadoff spot brought more stability as there wasn’t a black hole at the top.
After finding a way to fill in the cracks with McLouth in left and the combination of Robert Andino, Omar Quintanilla, and Ryan Flaherty at second base, the Orioles will now need to patch another in right field. But it’s what they’ve done throughout the season, and Showalter won’t shy away from thinking outside the box to maximize production.
The Orioles’ best option in right would be to go with a platoon of Chris Davis and Lew Ford. Serving primarily as the designated hitter since Jim Thome went on the disabled list, Davis played respectably in the outfield earlier this season and has hit left-handers (.256 with four home runs in 90 at-bats) nearly as well as right-handers (.257 with 20 home runs in 343 at-bats) this season despite sitting against southpaws more regularly in the second half.
The Orioles could then use Wilson Betemit as the designated hitter against right-handed starters — he’s batted .304 against right-handed pitching this season — and move Davis back to the DH spot with Ford playing right field in games against left-handed starters. Betemit is hitting .143 against left-handers and shouldn’t be considered as a full-time DH.
The defense clearly won’t be as strong without Markakis in right, but the offensive production could remain at a tolerable level with Davis’ bat in the lineup every day and Betemit getting regular at-bats against right-handed pitchers. The return of Thome would provide another option at the DH spot against right-handed pitching, but it’s premature to assume the 42-year-old returns to action and can be productive at this point.
It’s not ideal, but very little has been that way this season and the Orioles still find themselves 17 games over .500 in the second week of September.
Lineup decisions and defensive alignment aside, how will the Orioles respond emotionally to losing one of their best players?
Markakis is well-respected in the clubhouse and you have to feel for him missing out on the first pennant race of his career after enduring six miserable seasons to begin his career in Baltimore. The right fielder missed only 25 games in his first six seasons combined but has endured abdominal surgery, hamate bone surgery, and a broken thumb in this calendar year.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for a team trying to do what no one believed they could entering the season.
“It sucks, what do you want me to say?” center Adam Jones said. “It’s September and one of our best players is down for the the rest of the year. It sucks. What can we do about that? Me [whining] and complaining is not going to heal his hand tomorrow. We have to rally around him. People have injuries late in the year. It’s extremely unfortunate, but it’s how things happen sometimes.”
The disappointment was evident following the game and understandably so.
In a season that can’t be explained statistically, perhaps Showalter’s finest accomplishment has been the ability to get players to buy into the concept of compartmentalizing a 162-game schedule. One of the most tired cliches of the sports world is to “take it one game at a time,” but the Orioles have exhibited just that throughout the season.
They’re never too high after wins and never too down after defeats, and it’s that mindset they must exercise in continuing to play at a high level despite the loss of Markakis.
It starts Sunday with a chance to take three out of four from the Yankees and move into sole possession of first place as the mediocre Freddy Garcia — complete with his 5.09 earned run average — takes the hill for New York.
The loss of Markakis won’t cripple the Orioles. Their record was 16-19 without him earlier this season.
They’ll fill in the cracks in right field just like they’ve done to get by at second base and left field.
But “just getting by” won’t land them in the postseason.
The Orioles will have to be better than that and losing such an important piece to their puzzle of success hurts those chances.