As the Atlanta Braves prepare for an unexpected trip to the baseball playoffs, their fortunes ride on the back of a local hero with an uncertain future.
Nick Markakis, born in New York but raised in Atlanta, is completing a four-year, $44 million contract this fall. He hopes to finish with a flourish but recent facts make that almost as unlikely as the Braves getting this far in the first place. The team won 90 games — the first time since the 1991 Braves that any team won that many after losing that many at least three years in a row.
Although he made the All-Star team for the first time in his 13-year career and even flirted with his first batting title, the durable rightfielder has struggled at the plate Over the last 10 games, he has just five hits in 30 at-bats.
That dropped his final average to .297, his best mark since hitting a point higher with the 2012 Baltimore Orioles. But Markakis did knock in 93 runs, his best mark since 2009, and was one of three Braves, along with fellow All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, with 40 doubles.
What the Braves like best about Markakis is his durability. The 6-1, 210-pound lefthanded hitter was the only man on the team who started all 162 games – a feat achieved previously for the Braves by Felix Millan, Andruw Jones, Jeff Francoeur, and Freeman. In fact, the only other man in the league to start every game was San Diego shortstop Freddie Galvis.
Manager Brian Snitker offered Markakis a day off but the soft-spoken outfielder refused.
“I talked to him multiple times during the year about taking a day,” Snitker told writers before the game in Philadelphia Sunday, “but he said, ‘This is what I train for.’ I’d go through the weight room at 6:30 before a 7:00 game and find him there throwing weights around.”
Maybe that weight-lifting allowed Markakis to survive the rigors of the 162-game season. Then again, maybe it proved too grueling for his 34-year-old body. Except for catchers Kurt Suzuki and Rene Rivera, who are just a few months older, Markakis is Atlanta’s ancient mariner.
With 2,237 career hits and an average of 181 per season, it’s not impossible that he’ll join the elite 3,000 club before hanging up his spikes.
But will he do it in Atlanta?
He says he’d like to stay but the youth-oriented Braves might seek more power from his position. Should Markakis walk, the team could shift Rookie of the Year contender Ronald Acuna, Jr. from left to right and deploy veteran slugger Adam Duvall, who saw little action after his midseason arrival from Cincinnati, in left. They could also test Bryce Harper’s interest in coming south after spending his career in Washington. Or the Braves could promote a prospect and hope their luck with Acuna happens again.
Before that happens, however, the Braves need to know which Markakis will surface in the best-of-five National League Division Series that starts Oct. 4.
Will it be the Markakis who hit .362 in May with 42 hits, 18 runs scored, and 11 runs batted in? Or will it be the veteran who looked like he was running out of gas in the middle of the final month?
Power was never his forte; Markakis has a career high of 23 home runs, reached in his second big-league season, and has a 162-game average of 14 – his exact total in 2018. He connected just three times in 2015, his first Atlanta season, after undergoing neck surgery that sapped his strength.
Even when he doesn’t hit, however, Markakis helps the team both on and off the field. A two-time winner of a Gold Glove for fielding excellence, he nearly nailed a Philadelphia runner at home Sunday with a strong throw from right field. He holds the major-league mark for most consecutive errorless games by an outfielder (398).
Markakis is also a steadying influence in a clubhouse filled with players barely old enough to vote. He’s one of few Braves with postseason experience, dating back to his 2014 experience with the Orioles: 31 at-bats over seven games spread over the Division Series and Championship Series. He hit .258 with one home run and three runs batted in.
Though he doesn’t supply much power, the bearded outfielder spent all of 2018 as Atlanta’s clean-up man, batting behind Freeman in an attack that placed fourth in the league in runs scored.
He started well, winning the Opening Day game against Philadelphia with a dramatic ninth-inning home run and producing a 12-game hitting streak from April 23-May 5. He knocked it at least one run over second consecutive games from April 28-May 5 and had multiple hits in five straight games from May 1-5
In fact, he was doing so well that fans voting for the All-Star lineups gave him more votes (3,556,469) than any other National League outfielder. Only Freeman had more votes for the lineup.
Despite his September slide, Markakis still ranks second in the league in hits, third in doubles, ad ninth in batting average. He entered the final day Sunday tied for the lead in multi-hit games.
Veterans have been known to play their best when the pressure is greatest – especially if they have a chance to catch their breath between the end of the season and the start of the playoffs.
That is exactly the situation facing Nick Markakis.
His future must be weighing on his mind too, though the taciturn outfielder doesn’t say much. The team hasn’t said whether it wants him back or what type of contract – in terms of both money and years – it might offer a player at age 35. Perhaps his playoffs performance will be the deciding factor for the fan favorite.
The Braves will face the winner of the National League West in the Division Series. The Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers, who finished with identical records, will lock horns in a one-game playoff to determine the winner, with the loser getting a ticket to the wild-card game.
Braves fans know Nick Markakis will be ready when his team’s series begins.