Markakis' numbers rising with his star

The Baltimore Sun

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It happens often. Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts will get into a discussion with a competitor about various players in the game and Nick Markakis' name will come up.

"I was talking to [the Boston Red Sox's] Mike Lowell the other day when he was on second base, and he said, 'Man, [Markakis] is one of my favorite young players. I respect those guys that can drive in those kinds of runs without hitting 40 homers,' " Roberts said.

"I know guys on every team that are impressed daily by the way he plays and his ability level. It's been awesome. He's really become one of the best young players in the game."

Roberts never doubted that would become the case, but he wondered how quickly Markakis' ability was going to emerge, especially when the rookie outfielder was hitting just .219 through the first two months of last season.

Markakis rebounded to finish the 2006 season with a .291 average, 16 home runs and 62 RBIs.

But could he avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? In a season that has produced many more questions for the Orioles, Markakis, at least, has provided one emphatic answer, leading the team in several offensive categories and playing what teammates have deemed Gold Glove defense in right field.

Markakis leads the Orioles in games (153), home runs (20), RBIs (103), doubles (42), hits (174), slugging percentage (.469) and outfield assists (12).

A bases-empty home run Sunday in Toronto made Markakis just the second Oriole - Cal Ripken Jr. was the first - to reach 100 RBIs in his second season.

With three more steals, Markakis could join the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and the New York Mets' David Wright and Carlos Beltran as the only players in the major leagues to hit 20 home runs, drive in 100 RBIs and steal 20 bases.

"You don't really appreciate what he's done until you stop and look at that line on the scoreboard," teammate Aubrey Huff said. "I know when I was 23, I wasn't putting up quite those numbers yet. For me, he just has a natural left-handed swing, and what helps a lot is his ability to take a pitch and be patient."

Asked recently if Markakis has progressed this season the way he had hoped, hitting coach Terry Crowley, whom the 23-year-old outfielder has repeatedly credited for his success, acknowledged it was a tough question for him to answer because of how good he thinks Markakis can be.

Before the season started, Crowley said he thought Markakis could go down as one of the best Orioles hitters ever.

"I think the absolute world of him," Crowley said. "I don't think it's a stretch to say that he's going to lead the league in hitting some years, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that he's going to hit 25 home runs a year on a regular basis.

"I think he's going to be a perennial All-Star. So is he ahead of my schedule? No. I think he's going along just perfectly."

Asked to assess his season, the low-key Markakis said, "Aside from us not winning, it's been a pretty good season all around."

While his numbers have improved in most categories, there are plenty of things Markakis feels he needs to work on. He has hit into 22 double plays, which is tied for the American League lead. He has struck out a team-leading 107 times in 598 at-bats after striking out 72 times in 491 at-bats last season.

He also again got off to a slow start, hitting just .245 in April with three home runs and 15 RBIs.

"At the beginning of the year, I found myself in the same situation that I was last year," he said. "For the first two months, I was trying to make adjustments to the pitchers, but this year, I started out in the three hole and I was struggling. I just have to make adjustments."

As comfortable as Markakis looks in the batter's box these days, he's also more at home in the clubhouse. For much of last season, he barely talked to his teammates, preferring to go about his business quietly. That's not the case this season; he spends significant time before games joking around with teammates and playing cards.

"We used to not talk, and it wasn't just me," said Roberts, who lives next door to Markakis and sometimes carpools with him to Camden Yards.

"It was anybody in here. Now, he's constantly sending me stupid text messages and banging on my door. He's a great kid. He really is. He's fun to be around, but you have to get to know him. He doesn't just open up for no reason."

Roberts remains most impressed with Markakis' ability to adjust and play the game the right way.

"He's very bright, baseballwise. He really pays attention to the game. He reminds me a lot of [B.J.] Surhoff in some ways," Roberts said. "He'll come into the clubhouse before the game and say, 'I got this guy's changeup; I can't wait.' And I'm going, 'Wow, that would be nice because I've got no chance.' The kid can just hit."

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