Why September return of Nick Markakis could be Braves’ October difference-maker

WASHINGTON — It’s a classic case of addition by addition.

The Atlanta Braves got Nick Markakis back on Friday. In related news, they just became an ever more dangerous October out.

Playing in his first game since suffering a fractured wrist on July 26, Markakis was all over the place. Facing Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the second inning, he lined a single to center field. In his next trip against the three-time Cy Young winner, Markakis laced a double to center and came around to score the Braves’ first run of the game. In the fifth, he came up with the bases loaded and just barely missed hitting a grand slam, instead settling for a 385-foot sac fly that sent Nats outfielder Victor Robles all the way to the wall in left-center and extended Atlanta’s lead to 3-0.

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“I was just up there trying to get comfortable again,” said Markakis, who was hitting .284 with a .787 OPS at the time of his injury. “Your first game back after seven weeks against a pitcher like that is not the easiest feat, so I was pleased. Didn’t see as many pitches as I’d like to, but when I did see my pitch, I tried not to miss it.”

He didn’t miss much of anything in the outfield either.

With Atlanta and rookie starter Mike Soroka leading 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, following a leadoff double by Adam Eaton, Nats MVP candidate Anthony Rendon lifted a fly ball to the gap between left and center. Markakis, a right fielder by trade who was playing left field for the first time this year, and center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. converged on the ball and confusion ensued. In the end, it was Markakis who ended up laying out and making an acrobatic, albeit avoidable, backhanded grab that kept Washington scoreless and almost resulted in him getting trampled by Acuna. An inning later, Markakis was on the ground again, sliding to his knees in shallow left to deprive Robles of a leadoff single.

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In typical Markakis fashion, neither play was a work of art (nor was the ball that got under his glove in the seventh and was charitably ruled a double). But considering that Markakis has now played a grand total of four games in left field over the last 12 years, the Braves will gladly live with it. Just like they’ll gladly live with having Markakis back in the lineup.

In the seven weeks since Markakis suffered that broken wrist, the Braves’ outfield has been something of a mess. Austin Riley, who came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Month in May, came crashing back to earth and then landed on the injured list with a sprained knee in early August. Opening Day center fielder Ender Inciarte, who missed two months with a lumbar strain and returned shortly before Markakis got hurt, hit the IL again in mid-August with a balky hamstring. Riley and veteran reserve Adam Duvall, a pair of right-handed hitters, have been good against southpaws but can’t be trusted against righties, and lefty swinger Matt Joyce has been the opposite. If not for Acuna, who has played all three positions (not at the same time) and is threatening to join the exclusive 40-40 club, Atlanta’s outfield might have collapsed on itself and turned into a certifiable black hole. Or something like that. Now, with Markakis back, the Braves’ universe is measurably more copacetic.

“My god,” said manager Brian Snitker following Markakis’ reentry into Atlanta’s atmosphere. “It’s just something else. One live BP, and two of the hardest-hit balls he’s probably had all year. And made a couple really nice plays in left. The guy’s a ballplayer. It’s huge for our lineup and our team to have him back in there.”

To be clear, the “huge” that Snitker refers to is more about the future than the past. Despite the disarray in the outfield, the Braves did just fine, thanks, without their veteran outfielder. In fact, their 30-14 record during Markakis’ absence was tops in the National League and 2.5 games better than the mighty Dodgers. Over that stretch, they managed to extend their division lead by three games over a Washington team that was as hot as any in the league. But that was then and this is now: In order for the Braves to accomplish their goals, from overtaking Los Angeles for top seed in the NL to winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly 20 years (2001 was the last time) to going all the way, they’ll need all hands on deck. On Friday, they added one more very capable pair of hands.

“It was awesome to have Kakes back,” Soroka said. “I know he really wanted to come back and make an impression, and I think he did that right off the bat. That gave us a little life.”

More importantly, it gave Atlanta an even better chance in October.

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