Perhaps it was fitting that the first leadoff home run in Nick Markakis’ career would stand as the game-winner Sunday in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel victory over the Seattle Mariners at Camden Yards.
In his nine years with the Orioles, Markakis has been both a consistent contributor and someone who often has been overlooked while flashier players take center stage.
“He is probably the epitome of consistency,” Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter said. “If you can wrap it up and put it in a bottle and give it to somebody —whatever he does on a daily basis — you’d be a rich man. He’s a big-time part of this team, part of this organization and he just continues to play baseball.”
A first-inning solo homer normally would go unnoticed over the course of a game, but Markakis’ shot onto the right-field flag court on the sixth pitch from Seattle right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma became more crucial as the afternoon played out.
It was the only run Iwakuma or Orioles starter Chris Tillman would allow in an old-fashioned pitchers’ duel. It was — surprisingly — the first time in 192 games as a leadoff hitter that Markakis had gone deep in his first at-bat.
“I didn’t even know that. I don’t know what to say,” Markakis said. “Good to get the first one out of the way.”
And because the run stood, it served as the first time in franchise history that the Orioles had won 1-0 on a leadoff homer.
“That was cool. That was interesting,” Tillman said. “Their pitcher was good. I knew runs were going to be at a premium.”
In the throes of an August pennant race, the Orioles (62-48) need every win they can get to maintain first place in the American League East and hold off the second-place Toronto Blue Jays, who fell 3 1/2 games behind the Orioles on Sunday but will host them at the Rogers Centre for a three-game series beginning Tuesday. First, the Orioles must stop in Washington, D.C., on Monday night for a makeup game against the Nationals.
The Orioles’ win Sunday before an announced 35,217 was again spurred by pitching: Tillman’s seven shutout innings, another scoreless performance by newcomer Andrew Miller and closer Zach Britton’s 23rd save that cemented the club’s ninth shutout of the season.
Also, like most Orioles games in roughly two weeks, it was determined by the slimmest of margins. The Orioles’ last six victories, and eight of their last nine games, have been decided by one run.
The win gave the Orioles a 4-2 homestand and a 5-2 record against the Mariners (57-54) in their season series. It also marked the fourth consecutive series won by the Orioles, the first time they have done that this season.
Tillman (8-5), who struggled in his last outing, was superb Sunday, allowing four hits, walking none and striking out six batters. Only once did he allow two base runners in an inning, and he struck out his final two batters to extinguish that threat. It came against the team that originally drafted Tillman before trading him to the Orioles as part of the deal for Erik Bedard in 2008. Tillman is now 6-0 in six career starts versus Seattle.
“Just another team now,” Tillman said.
It was also a tremendous — and noteworthy — afternoon for Markakis.
After homering in the first inning, Markakis singled to right field in the third for the 1,500th hit of his career. He is one of only six players to have at least 1,500 hits with the Orioles, joining Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Brady Anderson and Boog Powell.
“I hope everybody understands what we're watching here,” manager Buck Showalter said. “We talk about some of those guys through the years that were solid Orioles; you've got to mention his name, hopefully, for many years.”
At 30, Markakis likely would have to have at least nine more productive seasons to reach the vaunted 3,000-hit plateau — which is daunting but not impossible, assuming he can stay healthy.
“1,500’s a big accomplishment, you just pat him on the butt and hopefully he hits another 1,500 before he’s done,” Hunter said.
A potential free agent at year’s end, Markakis downplayed the hitting milestone, and the fact that he had three of the Orioles’ five hits against Iwakuma (9-6).
“A lot of hard work and time and dedication, it pays off,” Markakis said. “[But] I don’t look at things like that. The scoreboard is the main outcome. We won the game today whether I got no hits or eight hits.”
With a chance for a cycle if he could hit a triple in the eighth, Markakis popped up in his final at-bat Sunday. Afterward, he concentrated more on what it means to be a good teammate than what he had just done against a tough Mariners club.
“All that really matters is what my teammates think,” Markakis said. “If you can go out there and put yourself on that field every day and give yourself and your team a chance to win, I think that says a lot about a lot of players we have around here.”
Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said he’s surprised by just how underappreciated Markakis seemingly is outside of the Baltimore area. But, he said, that’s not the case within the clubhouse.
“He has been here through the good times and the not-so-good times. I think he is probably one of the most consistent guys I’ve ever played with,” Davis said. “If you don’t play on the East Coast or if you’re not really paying attention, he’s one of those guys that kind of flies under the radar. … He’s just a solid player and a guy you know you can lean on.
“And he doesn’t ever seem like he ever gets overwhelmed.”