BALTIMORE — Nick Markakis shyly quipped to reporters that they finally wanted to talk to him for something good in a nightmarish season for the six-year veteran.
There was no doubt about it Friday night after the right fielder hit a grand slam and added a two-run double to collect a career-high six runs batted in in the Orioles’ 7-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. It ended a drought of 88 at-bats without an extra-base hit for Markakis and temporarily halted concerns about a disappointing 2011 season. His six RBI matched the total he had over his last 27 games since May 8.
“I guess you could say it was a relief for me, but it was a relief for the whole team,” said Markakis, who entered the game with only eight extra-base hits in 240 at-bats. “We got a big hit in a big situation.”
His grand slam off Jeremy Hellickson in the second inning gave the Orioles a 5-0 lead and provided enough for starter Jake Arrieta to collect his team-leading eighth win. Arrieta carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and pitched seven shutout innings to guide the Orioles to their fourth straight win, but the right-hander could credit his right fielder for driving in six of the Orioles’ seven runs.
“I’m really happy for Nick to get that hit,” said Arrieta, who completed seven innings for only the second time this year. “I feel like he’s been one hit away like that.”
The Orioles and fans alike envision it as the start of a turnaround for the right fielder. Before Friday, endless hours of watching video and working on his swing had appeared fruitless over much of the last two months as Markakis tried to get himself back to the level of production he enjoyed over his first five seasons when he averaged over 61.2 extra-base hits per year.
Always quiet and stoic, Markakis barely cracked a smile when asked whether the weeks of extra work had finally paid off.
“There’s still a lot more hard work to come. I’m feeling better. I still don’t feel like I’m where I need to be. I’m just going to keep plugging away. You got to take it game by game, at-bat by a-bat. You can’t worry about what has happened or what’s coming. You have to stay within yourself where you are right now.”
Only time will tell whether Markakis’ career night was a start of the law of averages swinging back in his favor or a temporary aberration in a season of frustration for the Orioles’ highest-paid player.
The Orioles (30-31) hope it’s the former as they once again climbed to within one game of the .500 mark after picking up their sixth win in 10 games against the Rays. With Brian Roberts still out with concussion-related symptoms, the club needs Markakis’ production in the No. 2 spot to produce runs for an offense that’s struggled through the season’s first 61 games.
“Everybody sees the work Nick’s been putting in,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He feels such a responsibility to the team and the Orioles and fans. We see it, he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He grinds it, almost to a fault, but that’s why you love him. He’s a piece for us because of the things that he does to give himself a chance to be successful.”
To see how excited his teammates were following the second-inning grand slam was a clear indication of just how much Markakis means to the Orioles and how sorely his production has been missed. They wish that it’s only a preview of what’s to come with the Orioles still hanging around in a competitive American League East.
Everyone — including Markakis — can only wait and wonder.
“If it’s there, you’ll see it,” Markakis said. “You’ll see the results. I’ve got a lot more work to do. I’ve been getting as much [work] in as I can and not wearing myself out, and that’s the beauty of this game. We have a whole lot of games left to play.”