CHICAGO – Nick Markakis has worked his way back from December neck surgery and hit over .340 for the past four weeks, raising his season average and on-base percentage to what would be his highest marks in five seasons if he can maintain them the rest of the way.
But the 31-year-old Braves right fielder hasn’t been able to take as much satisfaction from his personal in-season progress for one reason. He wants to win, and the Braves haven’t done much of that over the past six weeks.
Markakis knew when he signed a four-year, $44 million free agent contract last winter that the Braves were in a transition stage and that there would be some struggles as they set out on a an atypical course — trying to restock their organization with young talent while also remaining competitive until they move into a new ballpark in 2017, by which point they intend to be pennant contenders.
But knowing that this could happen doesn’t make it a lot easier for a competitive athlete to go through it when it does. The Braves had a 42-42 record through July 7, surpassing the expectations that most everyone in and around baseball had for them. But then came injuries and trades and losses – lots of losses — and the Braves were 11-27 in their past 28 games before Saturday’s game against the Cubs, including a staggering 2-20 on the road in that span.
Markakis hit .344 (33-for-96) in his past 23 games before Saturday, with six doubles, a homer, 14 RBIs and a .366 OBP and .438 slugging percentage. But the Braves were just 6-17 in those games.
He had two hits including a two-out, two-run double in the fourth inning Friday to give the Braves a 3-1 lead, a lead that didn’t last long. He was asked afterward about having the fourth-most multi-hit games (40) in the National League and how good it must make him feel to be producing so consistently in his first season after major surgery.
“Personally, yes,” said Markakis, who was batting .298 with a .368 OBP before Saturday. “Team-wise, we’d like to be better. I’m just trying to go up there, have good at-bats, try to be aggressive, and when they make a mistake over the plate, try not to miss it. That’s the name of the game, especially at this level. You may only get one pitch (to hit) all game, and you’ve got to make the most of it.”
He has only two homers and a .376 slugging percentage for a modest .744 OPS – better than the last of his nine seasons with Baltimore, but 45 points below his career OPS. The Braves and Markakis are confident, however, that he’ll increase the slugging percentage and home runs after a normal offseason, since he didn’t get to lift weights or work out at all last winter until spring training began. He averaged 15.6 homers with Baltimore and had at least 10 every season.
Markakis’ .324 road batting average before Saturday was the third-best in the National League, but it hasn’t been enough to help the Braves avoid piling up a majors-leading 45 road losses.
They took a seven-game road losing streak into Saturday’s game, including 0-5 to start a seven-game trip that ends Sunday at Wrigley Field. They were swept Aug. 11-12 at Tampa Bay, swept in three games at San Diego to start the current trip, and lost the first two games of the four-game Cubs series before Saturday.
“It’s tough,” Markakis said. “It’s a tough road trip going to the West Coast and coming back here. But it is what it is, we’ve just got to keep battling, don’t take anything for granted, have good at-bats, play defense and try to score as many runs as we can for these pitchers. We’ve been coming up short, but can’t say we haven’t been trying.”