Markakis solid, but homerless, in 1st season with Braves

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This home run off Detroit's Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2014 division series was the last home run hit by Nick Markakis, who hasn't gone deep yet in his first season with the Braves. (AP photo)

 

We’re here today to consider Nick Markakis, who is having a solid first season with the Braves in every regard except the power-hitting component, which has been pretty much non-existent. Not that home runs are overly important, because they’re not. But with the season more than one-fourth complete, the veteran right fielder has yet to hit a home run, which is at least worth a brief discussion.

First of all, we will point out that Markakis is 5-for-11 with a homer and two walks in his career against tonight’s Tampa Bay ‘s Jake Odorizzi, who starts tonight’s finale of a quick two-game set at Turner Field.  Markakis’ homer was one of four that Odorizzi allowed in a brutal game against the Orioles on Aug. 25.

This home run off Detroit's Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2014 division series was the last home run hit by Nick Markakis, who hasn't gone deep yet in his first season with the Braves. (AP photo)

This home run off Detroit’s Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2014 division series was the last home run hit by Nick Markakis, who hasn’t gone deep yet in his first season with the Braves. (AP photo)

Odorizzi was charged with 11 hits and eight runs in four innings of that loss at Baltimore, and since then the right-hander has posted a 2.78 ERA and .211 opponents’ average in 13 starts, with only five homers allowed in 81 innings.

Meanwhile, Markakis has hit just two regular-season homers since that day. Both came at Yankee Stadium, where most lefties love to hit, in a six-RBI, three-game stretch Sept. 23-25 in the next-to-last series of the 2014 regular season.

Since then, Markakis is homerless in his past 39 regular-season games and 148 at-bats. He has seven extra-base hits (all doubles) and 37 singles in that stretch, batting a strong .297 with a .388 OBP but only a .345 slugging percentage. (For the record, his last homer came off Detroit’s Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the division series.)

The only NL hitters who’ve gone homerless in more at-bats this season than Markakis (141 ABs) are Dee Gordon (159), Ben Revere (154) and Angel Pagan (146). Not typically the type of hitters one might associate with Markakis.

Did we mention Markakis has been batting cleanup for the Braves lately?

While he’s never been a big power hitter, Markakis has double-digit home run totals in each of his nine previous seasons, including a pair of 20-homer seasons early in his career, and 14 homers in 2014 despite playing with a herniated disk that was first diagnosed in March 2013 and had progressively worsened.

Markakis had neck surgery to repair that disk in December, a couple of weeks after signing a four-year contract with the Braves. It’s certainly possible — and perhaps probable — that Markakis’ reduced power is a result of that loss of strength when he couldn’t follow his usual offseason strength and conditioning program and missed much of spring training before being cleared to resume full activities.

If so, there’s no reason to think the 31-year-old Woodstock High graduate can’t regain that strength in time, though perhaps not until next winter when he gets a chance to work out as hard as he likes to on a daily basis.

(Blogmeister update: I talked to Markakis about this very subject today at the balpark after writing the blog earlier in the day. Here’s what he had to say on the subject.)

Given the circumstances, I’ve been impressed and frankly a little surprised that he’s played as well as he has in the first quarter of the season for the Braves, and particularly that he didn’t need more rest while working back into playing shape. He’s played steady defense and started 37 of 38 games, including 36 in right field (one at DH). Only Freddie Freeman has started all 38 games.

In his first season with the Braves, Markakis has hit .298 with six doubles, 10 RBIs, 20 walks, 24 strikeouts, a .389 OBP and .340 slugging percentage, making him the most unlikely cleanup hitter in the majors. He’s batted fourth in the past four games, since Kelly Johnson strained an oblique and landed on the 15-day DL.

The theory behind the move was that hitting Markakis fourth would give No. 3 hitter Freeman some protection, since the Braves are just about out of other options for that task and really want to make pitchers at least think twice about pitching around Freeman.

Maybe it’ll work. But so far, well….

Johnson was injured and left the game during his first-inning at-bat May 13 at Cincinnati. Since then, Freeman has gone 3-for-22 with no extra-base hits, one RBI and seven strikeouts in five games (Jonny Gomes finished the May 13 game in Johnson’s cleanup slot, and Markakis moved to that spot in the next game).

But it’s hard to point to the 3-hole hitter as a reason for Freeman’s unproductive past five games, since he’s not been walked or blatantly pitched around in that period. This could just be another mini-slump like the one he roared back from earlier in the season.

In his 16 games prior to May 13, Freeman scorched at a .452 clip (28-for-62) with 11 doubles, one homer, 10 RBIs, eight walks, a .514 OBP and .677 slugging percentage.

The other thing is this: If not Markakis in the cleanup spot, then who? Until Kelly Johnson returns, to me A.J. Pierzysnki seems the best choice when he’s in the lineup. But other than him, is anyone else in the current lineup a better choice than Markakis? For now, no.

• Tonight’s matchup: Braves Williams Perez makes his first major league start in his third appearance, and he faces a tough counterpart in the Rays’ Jake Odorizzi, who has seven quality starts in eight outings this season, has allowed one or no runs in five of those games, and has the seventh-lowest ERA among American League qualifiers.

Perez looked like the proverbial deer in headlights while allowing two hits, four runs, one homer and two walks and recording just one out in his first MLB appearance May 8 at Washington, but came back to allow just one hit and two walks in two scoreless innings at Cincy’s bandbox May 13 in his second appearance.

Now the Venezuelan, who turns 24 on Thursday, will make his first big-league start. He was 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA in five starts at Triple-A Gwinnett, giving up 28 hits but only six runs (four earned) and one homer in 27 innings, with nine walks and 21 strikeouts.

Perez found out Sunday that he’d be starting in place of struggling veteran Eric Stults, who was sent to the bullpen.

“I was told that I was going to be a long guy here, so it was a pleasant surprise,” Perez said Tuesday, through translator Horacio Ramirez, the Braves video-review coordinator and former pitcher. “

I asked Perez if he was ready, to which he replied: “Yeah. I’ve always been a starter. This is my first time in the pen. I’m ready for this…. “I learned a lot from the first (relief appearance). I learned I’ve got to mix my pitches more.  And the second one was better. I’m ready for this one.”

The Braves probably can’t afford to give up more than a few runs if they’re to have much change of beating Odorizzi, whose record is not at all an indication of how good he’s been this year. He’s received the third-lowest run support among AL starters with just 2.36 runs per nine innings pitched.

By comparison, the Braves’ Julio Teheran has had the best run support among NL starters at 7.01 runs per nine innings pitched. That goes a long way toward explaining Odorizzi’s 3-3 record despite his 2.36 ERA, compared to Teheran’s 3-1 record and 4.33 ERA. The Brave have scored at least three runs while Teheran has been in six of his eight starts, and five or more runs while he was in four.

The Rays have scored more than two runs just once while Odorizzi has been in a game, and scored one or no runs while he was in half of his eight games.

Besides Markakis, the only other active Braves who’ve faced Odorizzi in the regular season are A.J. Pierzynski (2-for-4) and Jonny Gomes (0-for-4).

• Etc.

  The Braves are 8-9 at home and haven’t had a winning streak of longer than two games this season at Turner Field. They are 6-9 with a 5.00 ERA in their past 15 home games.

On the road, the Braves are only 10-11 and have lost 10 of their past 15 games, but they do have two winning streaks of longer than two games on the road and have had 10 or more hits in six of their past 10 games.

Turner Field is considered a pitcher’s park, or at least it slightly favors pitchers over hitters. And yet, Braves pitchers have a 4.65 ERA in 17 home games, nearly a run higher than their road ERA (3.70) in 21 games….

The Rays are 7-4 with a 3.25 ERA in their past 11 games, and they also hit 13 homers and averaged five runs per game in that stretch….

The Braves had just four hits Tuesday, but one was a double by Todd Cunningham, who is 9-for-15 (.600) with two doubles, five runs and one strikeout in four games since being called up from Triple-A.

* Here’s one by Spoon off their great album They Want My Soul.

“DO YOU” by Spoon

Spoon

Spoon

I was on 45th
I was half out of a dive
Yeah I knew that you saw me
You laughed when I looked back
I thought I’d given up
Now I didn’t feel so bad
And then a shock went through me
And then I walked right back

Do you want to get understood?
Do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood?
Do you run when it’s just getting good?
Or do you, do you, do you, do you, wooh

(Tututututututututu)

Someone get Popsicles
Someone do something bout this heat
‘Cause it’s late in October
And tar’s still melting in the streets
You tiptoe for ages and lose yourself
Flipping back pages, unbuckling belts

Oh love, that’s the way love comes
Do you, don’t you know that that’s the way love comes?
Do you feel it black and blue?
Or do you, do you, do you, do you


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