Weeks before the annual ritual of jogging down the orange carpet in front of a sellout crowd — before the loud ovation Nick Markakis received during his pre-game introduction — there was the isolation of those back fields in Sarasota. Doing routine tasks — running sprints, taking swings and chasing fly balls — the Orioles right fielder steadily learned to regain trust in his body.
“And it all leads up to Opening Day,” Markakis said. “That’s what we were shooting for.”
Markakis, determined to dictate his recovery from offseason surgery to repair multiple abdominal tears, focused solely on being in the lineup for Opening Day. And on Friday afternoon, the longest-tenured player on the Orioles’ 25-man roster — and one of the most durable players in the game — made his sixth straight Opening Day start.
No stranger to the hoopla, Markakis then provided the dramatics.
With his first swing of the regular season, Markakis answered any questions about his health, hitting an opposite-field home run in his first at-bat. It was the beginning of a three-RBI day for Markakis in the Orioles’ 4-2 Opening Day win over the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards.
“It’s very apropos,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Let’s keep in mind why Nick had that problem. Nick had that problem because of the way he plays the game, because of the constant pounding and the diving and things he does to separate himself from most right fielders.”
Markakis said he never doubted he’d be in the Orioles’ starting lineup on Opening Day, and after the win, he said this opener would go down as one of his most memorable.
“I can say that out of seven seasons, this is probably my best start to the season,” Markakis said. “It’s a very humbling game and you want to go out there and play 100 percent every day. This game can come back and bite you real quick if you get out there and be lackadaisical. We’re going to build on this.”
Combined with a sparkling pitching performance from right-handed starter Jake Arrieta — who threw seven shutout innings — the Orioles kicked off a season-long celebration of Camden Yards’ 20th anniversary by giving their long-suffering fans a new slice of Oriole Park history.
In Friday’s pre-game introductions, the fans showed their appreciation for Markakis, giving him one of the loudest ovations.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Markakis said. “I’ve said it a thousand times before: we have the greatest fans in baseball, and I really do believe that. I think we owe a lot to the fans in the past years and we’re going to do our best to do what they want.”
And Markakis gave the announced sellout crowd of 46,773 fans something to cheer about in his first at-bat against Twins starter Carl Pavano in the bottom of the first, taking a 1-0 hanging curveball the opposite way into the left-field stands to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
Markakis became the first Oriole to homer on Opening Day since Luis Matos did it off then-A’s lefty Barry Zito on April 4, 2005.
More important to Orioles fans was that Markakis’ homer was his first true opposite-field home run in three years — he hit three to left in 2008 — and just his 12th to left in 105 career home runs, an early indicator that he’s regained his power.
“This game isn’t the easiest game in the world,” Markakis said. “You go out there and put your work in and get your stuff done and the game will reward you.”
Markakis missed his second homer of the afternoon by just a few feet in the sixth inning, this time pulling a ball to the right that was misplayed by Twins right fielder Ryan Doumit, hit off the fence and ricocheted into center field. Markakis landed on third with an RBI triple that put the Orioles up 4-0.
“He busted his tail to get where he is,” Arrieta said. “He took his time to make sure he was 100 percent ready to go for Opening Day today. Very happy for him to see where he’s at right now. [He looks] very comfortable at the plate, looks great physically. He’s right where we need him to be at this point in time.”
Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Arrieta, the youngest Orioles’ Opening Day starter since 25-year-old Mike Mussina started the 1994 opener, did his part to shut down the Twins, holding Minnesota to two hits. Arrieta faced the minimum amount of batters through the first three innings and didn’t allow a base runner past second.
“I just think my mindset was to just really to set the tone for our team in front of a great crowd,” Arrieta said. “[There were a] lot of excited fans for a new season. I think that was important to come out and set the tone the way we did. I think as a whole, we take it personal that most people write us off from the get-go. I think we made a statement today. We’ve got a lot to play for this year.”
Arrieta, who struck out four and walked two, worked ahead of hitters throughout the day, mixing his mid-90s fastball with an effective slider and curveball. He also made several nice defensive plays, tallying four assists, including a 1-6-3 double play that ended the first and began a run of seven straight retired Twins.
Shelved last August with season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs in his pitching elbow, Arrieta was another great comeback story. No stranger to the spotlight — he threw six innings of one-run ball in a 5-1 win over Detroit in last year’s home opener — Arrieta again shined in the moment. He became the first pitcher in club history to go seven or more scoreless innings and allow two or fewer hits in an Opening Day start.
“He was really good,” Showalter said. “He pitched maybe a little better than he did last year in the same venue. I thought he kept his emotions under control, which is always a challenge with everybody. [He] trusted his fastball. It’s still his best pitch. I think all the pitchers will tell you that start time is a little bit of a challenge for hitters, but he commanded all his pitches.”
That forced the Orioles to turn to closer Jim Johnson, who struck out the first hitter he faced in Doumit, but yielded a walk and single to the next two batters, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. But Johnson induced a Trevor Plouffe grounder to short to end the game and convert his ninth straight save opportunity dating back to last year.
At least one game into the season, the Orioles — looking to reverse the trend of 14 straight losing seasons — are unbeaten. And one day into 2012, they send an excited crowd home happy.
“I’m an old fuddy-duddy,” Showalter said. “I get emotional a couple times today just seeing how much it means to the people in Baltimore. I’m not going to group everybody in baseball. This is different. They grow up with the Orioles. I'll be the first to tell you, it gives me a lot more responsibility, anxiety, delivering what they deserve — for all of us.
“And we know how great it can be here. And it's our responsibility. You've heard me say it 100 times — you see a game like that, you just hope that they keep that hope like we do. That atmosphere is special and I know it used to be like that every night. Our players, I know they get a taste of it. This group of guys talks about it. They know what this fan base is like and it’s up to us to tap deeper into it.”