The talk was part counseling, part coaching, and it didn't last long. When hitting coach Terry Crowley pulled Nick Markakis aside in the tunnel leading to the Orioles' dugout, he implored the third-year outfielder to relax and to trust himself.
For much of the past three weeks, Markakis has done neither, as one of the worst slumps of his young career weighed on his mind and his swing. But on a beautiful Memorial Day afternoon and with the surging New York Yankees in town, Markakis broke out in a big way, carrying the Orioles to a badly needed win with his bat and his arm.
Markakis had three hits, including a tiebreaking solo homer in the sixth inning, and threw out a runner at home plate, and starter Garrett Olson redeemed himself with seven scoreless innings in the Orioles' 6-1 victory in front of an announced 34,928 at Camden Yards. The win ended a discouraging five-game losing streak that had dropped the Orioles (25-25) below .500 and into last place in the American League East.
"From where we've been the last few games, you couldn't have drawn it up any better than the way it happened today for us," said Orioles manager Dave Trembley, whose team improved to 15-7 at Camden Yards with six games remaining on the homestand.
The Orioles are now in fourth place, a half game ahead of the Yankees, whose five-game winning streak ended despite another strong outing from Darrell Rasner (3-1). The right-hander left after the sixth inning, lamenting a 3-2 fastball that Markakis belted over the center-field wall to break a scoreless tie and improve to 9-for-11 in his career against Rasner.
Markakis also had a double in the third inning, his first-extra base hit since May 17, and an RBI single in the seventh as part of the Orioles' five-run outburst. The inning, highlighted by Aubrey Huff's three-run homer, represented more runs than the Orioles had scored in an entire game since last Tuesday.
The performance was long overdue for the lineup and for Markakis, who entered the game in an 0-for-12 slump and batting just .200 in May. He had also struck out 11 times in his previous 21 at-bats. Not only did the 24-year-old get a pep talk from Crowley, but he also decided to use teammate Brian Roberts' bat for the game.
"It was just a confidence builder," Markakis said. "Terry just put good things in my head, and I needed that. Anytime you are in a stretch like I was, it's definitely hard. I think the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to do a little much and not trusting myself. Today, I just felt good at the plate. I just have to trust myself."
Said Crowley: "We all know how talented he is. Even with a talented kid like Nick, [the slump] is a reminder of how tough it is to hit in this league. He's a special guy. I really feel every time up he's going to get a hit. I know that's impossible, but I really feel that way."
Several Orioles cited a third-inning defensive play by Markakis as the key to the victory. With runners on first and second, Markakis fielded Hideki Matsui's single and fired a perfect one-hop throw to catcher Ramon Hernandez, who tagged Johnny Damon to keep the game scoreless. It was Markakis' major league-leading eighth outfield assist.
"Markakis is some player," Damon said. "He showed off his arm to us a lot so far this year. [He has] tremendous speed getting to the ball. That was a great throw. I felt pretty good running there, and he got me by a couple steps. ... You can probably go around the league and put him up against anybody. He makes such quick adjustments. You can make him look bad on a certain pitch and you throw that pitch again and he'll drill it to left field. He's just a complete player."
After the out at the plate, Olson (4-1) retired 12 of the next 14 Yankees he faced and didn't give up another hit. Five days after allowing six earned runs to New York and not getting out of the third inning at Yankee Stadium, Olson surrendered only three hits and four walks while striking out seven.
"It's huge," Olson said. "When you see that you can do that, it definitely gives you the confidence to go out there every fifth day and realize you can get the job done no matter how you feel."