The strange career arc of Nick Markakis has taken another turn since he was activated from the disabled list following his recovery from the broken hamate bone. Lacking any other acceptable choices, the Orioles put him in as the leadoff hitter on July 13. At that time, he was batting .256/.333/.452 - career worsts in batting average and on-base percentage, with a slight uptick in power.
Leadoff hitting had been a serious problem for the O's since the loss of Nolan Reimold. Hitters like Endy Chavez and Robert Andino filled in for the interim batting first as the team acted as if the eventual return of Brian Roberts would solve their leadoff woes. Neither Chavez or Andino were the answer. Unfortunately, Roberts was not a major league-caliber player in the field or at the plate when he finally did return, again leaving the Orioles without an answer.
Markakis had never been a leadoff hitter before, and he certainly does not fit the "classic" mold of a leadoff hitter, being small and fast and capable of stealing a base. In his career, he had shown a good capability to hit for average and to get on base, so, lacking any better options, he was plugged in at leadoff.
Though he isn't your classic leadoff hitter, Markakis has responded with an unexpected hot streak. In the 20 games since returning, he's recorded multi-hit games in half of them. He batted .376/.416/.524 in the 19 games he played in July and he's now raised his season slash line to a .290/.354/.469. While that's not exactly the .300/.400/.500 player we imagined the O's would be getting locked up for six years after his great 2008 season and the ensuing contract extension, that's a valuable player and he's shown it since returning from the DL.
As Markakis himself said, "You're only batting leadoff once a game," and after that it's random luck. What the Orioles have done is put a player with good on-base skills in the position where he will bat the most, and that's exactly what you are supposed to do. He probably won't be as hot in August as he was in July, but if his numbers can stabilize around what they are now, that will be a good sign for the Orioles, and will give reason for O's fans to be hopeful that he can come close to earning his contract as it reaches its highest levels in its final years.
If the Orioles are going to complete an unexpected charge into the postseason, they will need a lot of other things to go right, as well, but with Markakis leading the way batting first, they've got one fewer question to answer than they did a month ago.