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STEVE DESHAZO: With clutch pitching, hitting, Orioles can see the possibilities

BALTIMORE—When your margin for error is as thin as the Baltimore Orioles’, you need everyone on board. And Friday’s season-opening 4–2 victory over Minnesota wouldn’t have been possible without two guys who could have been excused if they’d been watching from the dugout—or somewhere warmer.

Since last August, Jake Arrieta had a bone spur removed from his right (pitching) elbow, and right fielder Nick Markakis underwent abdominal surgery. Yet there they were, front and center in keeping the Orioles perched (for a day, at least) atop the American League East standings.

Arrieta blanked the Twins for seven innings, allowing just two hits and two walks. Markakis supplied the offensive punch with a two-run home run on the second pitch he saw and an RBI triple in the sixth inning.

“To see two guys who have really overcome challenges to contribute is really rewarding,” manager Buck Showalter said. “This game has a way of giving back to you what you put into it.”

Earning that rebate required divergent paths for the Orioles’ two opening-day stars. After his Aug. 12 surgery, Arrieta was a rehab rogue, working diligently to be ready for the No. 1 assignment that came open when Baltimore traded workhorse Jeremie Guthrie to Colorado.

“The whole rehab process, and the work that went along with that, this made it all worthwhile,” Arrieta said. “I wanted to cut down on my recovery time so that I could start my throwing progression. I wanted to be ready for this day.”

Boy, do the Orioles need him. Without Guthrie, their five projected starters (Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, Jason Hammel, Brian Matusz and Wei–Yin Chen) have a combined 87 major-league wins. Those suspect credentials—and the fact that the Orioles play in arguably the toughest division in American pro sports—is why “most people have written us off from the get-go.” according to Arrieta. “We made a statement today that we’ve got a lot to play for.”

They might if they get more starts like the one Arrieta provided. He threw three different pitches for strikes (including a 95 mph fastball) and consistently got ahead of hitters.

A healthy Markakis would also help. Even though he played in 160 games and won his first career Gold Glove in 2011, he wasn’t totally himself. His batting average (.284) was a career low, and his home run (15) and RBI (73) totals were below his peak seasons (2007–09).

“Part of that was because of how he plays the game.” Showalter said. “He’s constantly diving for balls that separate him from the average right fielder.”

While Arrieta expedited his rehab process, Markakis showed the patience of a six-year veteran—so much so that he admitted before the game he wasn’t always sure he’d be ready for opening day.

“The things he usually does in December and January, he was doing in February,” Showalter said. “We had to keep the carrot of playing in games in front of him to keep him going.”

The proof is in the pudding. Markakis, who bats left-handed, knows he’s back at full strength because his homer cleared the wall in left-center. “I don’t think I had an opposite-field home run at all last season,” he said.

Showalter was convinced when Markakis slid hard into home plate trying to score on a fly ball after his sixth-inning triple.

“I had to look away for a second,” Showalter said. “Then I looked back, and he was OK.”

To have a prayer of their first winning season in 15 years—let alone keeping within shouting distance of the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays—the Orioles will need good health, better-than-expected starting pitching and breakout seasons from young stars like Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. The return of veteran second baseman Brian Roberts from concussion symptoms would also help.

“Now they see, we can do this,” Showalter said, “if we get starting pitching like we got today, and everybody contributes.”

That’s a lot to ask, but the blueprint has been established. And at least the Orioles are off to a healthy start.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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