Nearly four hours before Friday night's game, struggling right fielder Nick Markakis, clad in shorts and a white T-shirt, stood in the batter's box and sprayed balls around the field at a mostly empty Camden Yards.
It certainly wasn't the first time Markakis has been out there this early under the hot sun, trying to find a solution to the most confounding slump of his professional career. He has taken extra batting practice numerous times. He has watched video of his swing before and after games for weeks. He has made late-night visits to manager Buck Showalter's office for a pep talk and consulted often with teammates, current hitting coach Jim Presley and former hitting coach Terry Crowley.
And nothing had worked until Friday night when Markakis stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the second inning and unleashed weeks of frustration on Jeremy Hellickson's first pitch. Markakis' grand slam and a commanding performance by Jake Arrieta carried the Orioles to a 7-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in front of an announced 17,900 at sticky Camden Yards.
“I guess you can say that it's a relief for me, but it's a relief for the whole team,” said Markakis, who had gone 88 at-bats without an extra-base hit before he hammered Hellickson's breaking ball just over the scoreboard in right field. “We got a big hit in a big situation and we had great pitching and defense. You play good defense and you pitch, the more of the times you're going to win a game.”
The game's first pitch was delayed an hour and eight minutes by rain, but it was worth the wait for Arrieta, who didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning on his way to seven shutout innings, and then for Markakis, whose grand slam marked his first extra-base hit since May 15.
He also hit a two-run double in the eighth inning, giving him a career-high six RBIs.
Markakis had six RBIs in his previous 27 games and just 19 for the season coming into the game.
“Everybody knows the work that Nick's been putting in,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He feels such a responsibility to the team and the Orioles. We see it. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve, but he grinds it, almost to a fault. That's what you love [about] him. He's a piece for us, the things he does to give himself a chance to be successful. I thought the second hit for him was about as big as the first one. We'll see where it carries. It was a nice moment for him in a big situation in the game.”
J.J. Hardy also homered and reached base in all five plate appearances for the Orioles, who have now won four straight games and are back to one game under .500 at 30-31. They didn't win their 30th game until July 20 last season.
With the victory, Arrieta improved to 8-3, tying for the American League lead in wins and becoming the first Orioles pitcher to record his eighth win as early as June 10 since Sidney Ponson did it on June 7, 2003.
He outpitched Hellickson, who allowed five earned runs on seven hits and three walks in 52/3 innings. Entering the night, he had surrendered just five earned runs the entire month of May and six earned runs over his previous six starts.
That stretch included a dominant start against the Orioles on May 13 at Tropicana Field, where he pitched a shutout, allowing just four hits and one walk while striking out three. That improved him to 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA against the Orioles in his young major league career.
But on this night, another hot and humid one in Baltimore, he had his second pitch driven into the left-field seats by Hardy. It was Hardy's sixth homer of the season, and it marked the second time in three games that the shortstop has led off a contest with a home run. Those also are the only two times he's batted leadoff in his career.
Hellickson then appeared to be on his way of getting out of a jam with runners on second and third and no outs in the second inning before Markakis sent a screaming line drive onto the flag court. It was his third career grand slam and his first since April 17, 2009, against the Boston Red Sox's Brad Penny.
“I really couldn't see it because it was in the lights,” Markakis said. “I really didn't know where it was, but I knew I put a good swing on it, I knew I hit it hard. I looked at the umpire, and that's when I knew. … There is still a lot more hard work to come. I'm feeling better, but I still don't feel like I'm where I need to be. You have to keep plugging away. You have to take it game by game and at-bat by at-bat. You can't worry about what has happened and what's coming.”
With the Orioles leading 5-0, much of the drama shifted to whether Arrieta could pull off a significantly rarer feat. Through five innings, Arrieta had allowed just two walks while facing the minimum 15 batters. Johnny Damon led off the game with a walk but was thrown out attempting to steal by Matt Wieters. Ben Zobrist then drew a one-out walk in the fourth, but Evan Longoria followed by bouncing into an inning-ending double play.
However, Sam Fuld finally got the Rays' first hit to start the sixth, lining a double into the left center-field gap. Arrieta received a nice ovation from the crowd after the no-hitter was broken up.
“To be honest with you, I think about it pretty much all game,” Arrieta said. “You know you haven't given up a hit and it is something that, I've had a few outings like that, where you don't give up a hit until the fifth or sixth and you sit there and think, ‘What if? What if tonight is the night?' But you don't really let that get to you. It's just a thought in your mind, but you just continue to go out there and make quality pitches, and you never know what can happen.”
Arrieta was also quick to deflect credit to Markakis on this night.
“I'm real happy for Nick to get that hit,” Arrieta said. “I feel like he's been one hit away like that. That's just great for him. He's a guy that I always want at the plate with guys on base, no matter what the situation is. Regardless of his struggles, he's a very, very good hitter. And tonight he showed it.”
An earlier version of this article gave the wrong inning in which Nick Markakis hit a grand slam. It was the second inning. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun