Nick Markakis serves as DH on Sunday vs. Astros, Tommy Hunter won't make DL date and more

HOUSTON -- Lingering neck stiffness prompted Orioles manager Buck Showalter to place Nick Markakis in the team’s designated hitter spot to get a day off from playing the outfield in Sunday’s 9-4 series-ending win over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.

Markakis complained of a stiff neck before Saturday’s game in Houston, and Showalter said he was close to not playing before it loosened up during batting practice. Markakis said the stiffness is similar to what he dealt with before Opening Day, when his neck tightened up on the team’s flight north from spring training.

“I’m still a little stiff, but it’s better than yesterday, so it’s moving in the right direction,” Markakis said Sunday. “Ever since my herniated disc [in spring training of 2013], it pops up from time to time. Just something I have to deal with.”

Showalter said he wanted to put Markakis or center fielder Adam Jones at designated hitter Sunday to give them two days away from defense, including Monday’s scheduled day off.

“I’m fine with it,” Markakis said about getting a day off from the outfield. “Gives me an extra day. Throwing bothers it more than hitting, so it’s good to get a DH day every now and then.”

Nelson Cruz, who was being held out defensively after coming out of Wednesday’s game with calf tightness, started in right field Sunday. However, Cruz left the game after he was hit by a pitch, forcing David Lough to shift from left field to right field.

“Nick’s neck is better,” Showalter said Sunday. “He’s something. I can’t tell you how many guys wouldn’t have played yesterday — not wouldn’t have, but wouldn’t have come in here and tried to work all morning, trying to get it to loosen up. A lot of guys would have just woken up and said, ‘I’m out.’ That’s what you can’t evaluate with analytics. Where’s that show up?”

Markakis finished 1-for-4 Sunday, hitting an infield single in the first inning to improve his average in that frame to .434 (23-for-53) this season.

Hunter won’t come off DL on Thursday

Right-hander Tommy Hunter, out with a left groin strain, will not be ready to return from the disabled list when he is eligible Thursday, Showalter said.

Hunter threw his first bullpen session off a full mound Sunday morning, and he is set to fly to Texas on Monday to throw another bullpen session Tuesday in front of Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti.

At that point, the club will determine whether he is ready go on a two-outing minor league rehabilitation assignment. He could begin that Thursday at a minor league affiliate to be determined.

“He felt great today, threw breaking balls, changeups, fastballs,” Showalter said of Hunter’s session Sunday.

Showalter said Hunter likely won’t be activated until next Monday, at the earliest.

Around the horn

The Orioles are 20-8 when they score four or more runs this season, and 8-19 when they score three or fewer. … Shortstop J.J. Hardy’s homerless streak is now at 70 games, the longest of his career. … Minor league infield coordinator Dave Anderson will join the club in Texas. … Jones drew one walk in 133 plate appearances in May, the most plate appearances with one or fewer walks in that month since 1914, according to Stats Inc.

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