It takes a lot to force Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis from a game. He's played the past few days with a deep purple bruise on his left bicep from taking a pitch there last week in Toronto.
When he was recovering from surgery on his right wrist, manager Buck Showalter's toughest task was making sure Markakis didn't sneak off and start swinging a bat prematurely before the stiches from his surgery healed.
So when Markakis walked off the field just moments after taking a 92-mph fastball to his left hand, the Orioles dugout knew something was wrong.
On a night when the Orioles regained a share of first-place in the American League East with a 5-4 win over the New York Yankees in front of a sellout crowd at Camden Yards, the mood in the home clubhouse was somber.
After suffering a broken left thumb, Markakis — who has been one of the lifelines of the Orioles' second-half surge — will miss the rest of the regular season, a major punch-to-the-gut to the Orioles playoff hopes.
Not only is Markakis a Gold Glove outfielder, but he revived the Orioles offense once he returned from wrist surgery and took over the leadoff spot. His 73 hits since the All-Star break are second-most in the AL, and his post-break .335 average and .390 on-base percentage are major reasons why the Orioles are in the playoff hunt. The Orioles are 33-21 since Markakis took over the leadoff spot.
But after Saturday's win — one which encompassed the Orioles' season-long resilience — Orioles manager Buck Showalter's only optimism when it came to Markakis was the hope that he might be able to rejoin the Orioles if they played deep into the postseason.
“We're hoping we get news back [Sunday] that we've got to figure out a way to win, [to] get in the playoffs and get deep enough that Nick can try to come back,” Showalter said. “I continue to look at things half full. The last thing our guys need is to see me wallow away in self pity because nobody is going to feel sorry for you, most of all the Yankees.”
Markakis, who has played in 157 or more games in each of the last five seasons, had never been on the disabled list before this season. He was slowed in spring training by offseason abdominal surgery, but was ready for Opening Day. He missed six weeks with surgery to remove a fractured piece of the hamate bone in his right wrist, but came back and ignited the club.
The Orioles (78-61) won their 11th game in their last 14 games — and their seventh in their last 10 games against the Yankees — rallying from an early deficit to hit a season-high three homers off Yankees ace CC Sabathia.
In the fifth inning, Sabathia came inside on Markakis with a 0-2 fastball, hitting him in the hand. Markakis jumped out of the batter's box in obvious pain.
Given Markakis' toughness, the Orioles players knew his early exit was a bad sign.
“Once he came out of the game, right there we knew something was wrong,” first baseman Mark Reynolds said. “It kind of deflated us a little bit because he is who he is. We had guys step up. It's what we've been doing. It's what we'll keep doing.”
Said center fielder Adam Jones: “It sucks. What do you want me to say? It sucks. It's September and one of our best players is down for the rest of the year. It sucks. What can we do about that? Complaining isn't going to heal his hand tomorrow. We've got to rally around him. It's part of the game. People have injuries late in the year. It's extremely unfortunate. It sucks, but its professional sports. It's what happens sometimes.”
Before the Markakis injury, the Orioles began their comeback. Facing an early 2-0 deficit, Reynolds and Lew Ford hit back-to-back solo homers in the second to tie the game. Reynolds' homer was his ninth in nine games and Ford, making just his second start this month, drove in two runs on the night.
J.J. Hardy also drove in two runs, including the third homer off Sabathia in the sixth, which gave the Orioles a 5-3 lead.
Orioles starter Joe Saunders needed 48 pitches to get through the first two innings and fell behind 2-0, but came back to retire 10 straight.
The bend-but-don't break Orioles bullpen made it close, but shut the door on the Yankees. Leading 5-2 with two on and two outs in the sixth, reliever Darren O'Day struck out pinch-hitter Curtis Granderson swinging to end the inning.
Pedro Strop, who failed to hold leads in his past two outings against the Yankees, struggled again in the eighth. He allowed a two-out homer to Alex Rodriguez and then brought the tying run to the plate in Curtis Granderson with runners at the corners.
But left-hander Brian Matusz saved the day, striking out the left-handed Granderson to end the inning. In his new role as a reliever, Matusz has stranded all nine inherited runners.
Jim Johnson converted his 42nd save of the season by a hair in the ninth. He allowed one run to score, but induced a 4-6-3 game-ending double play from Severna Park native Mark Teixeira. Teixeira's grounder to second baseman Robert Andino was a slow roller, but Hardy's turn was just fast enough to best Teixeira, who slid into first head first but was called out.
It might have been the biggest win of the year, but there was no celebration in the Orioles clubhouse afterward, realizing the victory's immense cost.
“A big part of our team is gone now,” Reynolds said. “Someone's going to step up, no doubt about it, maybe not able to fill what Nicky's can contribute, but maybe just enough. The other guys on the team, it's their opportunity to fill this void. I think we can do it.”
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