Braves outfielder Nick Markakis opts back into 2020 MLB season

Braves outfielder Nick Markakis opts back into 2020 MLB season

This qualifies as a big surprise, especially given MLB's current circumstances.

Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, who opted out of the season on July 6 after an "eye-opening" conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman, has opted back in. Freeman tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of July and experienced "body aches, headaches, chills and a high fever," his wife Chelsea wrote on Instagram. Shortly after news of Freeman's bout with coronavirus broke, both Markakis and first-year Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez opted out of the season.

But Markakis has changed his mind.

"Sometimes in life you make rash decisions without thinking them through," Markakis said Wednesday. 

"At the time, I thought it was the right decision and it still could be the right decision. But I'm going against my decision. I'd like to come back. Sitting at home watching these guys compete the last couple of days and all the risks they're taking going out there, I just in a way, deep down, the pit of my stomach, I felt like I needed to be out there.

"It was nice to be home with the family but I know my family, my wife and my kids wanted me out here more than anything. I know there's challenging times out there right now. ... But deep down it didn't sit well with me and here I am now."

It's been a trying month for the Braves. Freeman, top left-handed reliever Will Smith, pitcher Touki Toussaint and utilityman Pete Kozma all tested positive for COVID-19. Markakis and Hernandez opted out. Yasiel Puig, brought in to replace Markakis, also tested positive so the Braves did not sign him.

Separately, Cole Hamels, signed to a one-year, $18 million contract in the offseason, is on the IL with a triceps injury and is not expected back soon.

Freeman was back in time for opening day last Friday, and Smith cleared COVID protocol over the weekend. Now Markakis is back. The Braves have begun the season 2-3 against the Mets and Rays.

The timing of Markakis' decision is surprising in light of 16 Marlins reportedly testing positive for COVID-19, with the Phillies off until Saturday and the Nationals off this weekend because they were scheduled to face the Marlins. The NL East has already been significantly affected by the realities of 2020.

Markakis, when ready, will likely slide back into right field for the Braves, pushing Ronald Acuña Jr. back to center and Ender Inciarte out of the starting lineup on nights they optimize for offense with DH Matt Adams. On other nights, Markakis could DH with Inciarte roaming the outfield.

In 14 big-league seasons, Markakis has hit .288/.358/.424 with 499 doubles and 188 homers. With 2,355 career hits, he's a longshot to reach 3,000 but it's possible. He turns 37 in November. His numbers in 91 games against the Phillies are similar to his career numbers, though he's homered just four times and has slugged about 20 points lower than against the rest of the NL East.

Markakis is the first player to opt back in for the season. In total, 14 MLB players have opted out of the season:

• Nationals catcher Welington Castillo

• Rockies reliever Tim Collins

• Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond

• Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez

• Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks

• White Sox starting pitcher Michael Kopech

• Diamondbacks starting pitcher Mike Leake

• Red Sox pitcher Collin McHugh

• Pirates reliever Hector Noesi

• Giants catcher Buster Posey

• Dodgers starting pitcher David Price

• Nationals pitcher Joe Ross

• Cubs outfielder Mark Zagunis

• Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman

Subscribe and rate the Phillies Talk podcast:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube

More on the Phillies

Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Phillies fans have been clamoring for Spencer Howard for a little while now. They've heard about the velocity, the swing-and-miss slider, the knee-buckling curveball, the diving changeup, the beyond-his-years command. The organization has been just as excited.

With a couple of doubleheaders this week, you could smell Howard's debut. It became apparent that the Phils would need a sixth starter and who better than Howard, the top pitching prospect in the organization who was already on the doorstep of the majors and who probably would have been here on opening day if not for service time considerations.

This was a big day for the Phillies. Two games against your division rival, the NL East favorite. Sweep the doubleheader and you win the series against the Braves. Split and you have a chance to win it Monday night.

Instead, the Phillies were outscored 13-2 in a pair of losses. They hit .146 on the day, went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position and the bullpen allowed eight runs on 13 hits in 5⅓ innings.

Still, there was excitement in the air because of Howard's long-awaited debut, which came Sunday afternoon in Game 2. After a couple of scoreless innings, the Braves welcomed Howard to the majors. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. took him deep, and Howard allowed four runs over 4⅔ innings. The Phillies lost the game 8-0, a few hours after falling to the Braves 5-2.

There are far greater sins than being beaten by two of baseball's best. Given the circumstances — Howard hadn't pitched against another actual team in months and his own throwing schedule was changed this week to accommodate the Sunday start — it wasn't that bad. (The Phillies' offense was much worse.)

"Spencer, for his first start, I thought he did pretty good," manager Joe Girardi said. "He was able to throw strikes. The first two guys get on (in the first inning) and he's able to not give up a run. He didn't fall apart, which sometimes it's tough to slow a young person's mind down when it's their first start or first year. I thought he handled it pretty well."

Howard did not feel sharp. He added that he'd rather get hit on a day like today than on a day when he does feel sharp because that, after all, could be symbolic of a larger issue than being rusty and making a few mistakes against a strong lineup like the Braves.

"I wouldn't say I felt sharp," the 24-year-old rookie said. "Just a little out of sync with mechanics. Left a lot of balls over the plate and mistakes get hit in the big leagues. Overall, it was a decent day, awesome to compete again."

It was obviously strange for Howard to debut with no fans or family members in the stands. Not how a little kid dreams about making his first start in The Show. Howard dreamt of pitching a shutout in his first start in front of mom and dad. 

But it's 2020, so c'est la vie.

"The cardboard cutouts actually made a difference, surprisingly," Howard said. "Coming back in the summer camp when it was just the blue bleachers and then seeing the cardboard with the fan noises, it was OK actually. I wish all my friends could be here but I know they're all watching and that's all that matters."

The question now becomes: Who makes the next start five days from now? Will it be Vince Velasquez, who allowed one run in four innings in Game 1 Sunday, or Howard?

"Right now, my plans are for Vinny to make that start," Girardi said. "I have not talked to anyone. We're going on a five-man rotation, Spencer came up and threw the second part of a doubleheader. I'll sit down and talk to our coaches and (GM Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice) and we'll make a decision.

"We didn't come into today and say we were going to make a change in the rotation. We didn't come out and say that. We said we're going to evaluate every day what's best for our team."

It is possible the Phillies, with such a bad bullpen, could make Howard a multi-inning reliever. They wouldn't use him as a closer but as a pitcher capable of picking up six, maybe even nine outs as a reliever when the situation calls for it. Long-term, Howard will be a starter. But given the struggles and lack of plus stuff in the Phillies' bullpen, Howard could make a big impact as a multi-inning reliever in a short season if the Phillies go that route.

It seems unlikely, if only because the Phillies still have five more doubleheaders and will need a sixth starter again. But it's on the table. Most everything is on the table until the Phillies find out a formula for a bullpen that has an 8.10 ERA with 44 hits allowed in 30 innings.

"It's something that we've talked about," Girardi said. "It's something we will continue to talk about. What we do and how we have the best makeup of a pitching staff."

Subscribe and rate the Phillies Talk podcast:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube


More on the Phillies

Phillies go hitless with runners in scoring position and lose both games of doubleheader to Braves

Phillies go hitless with runners in scoring position and lose both games of doubleheader to Braves

Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Braves spoiled the MLB debut of Phillies top prospect Spencer Howard on what was also a dismal day for the Phils' bats.

Freeman and Acuña each homered to the opposite field off of Howard, going 5 for 6 with those two jacks and a triple as the Braves won both games of Sunday's doubleheader by scores of 5-2 and 8-0.

The Phillies had just seven hits in 14 innings. They went 7 for 48 in the doubleheader, a .146 batting average.

Their best scoring chance in Game 2 came in the fifth inning when they loaded the bases with two outs for Bryce Harper, who flied out to shallow center.

The Phillies are 4-6. The Braves are 11-6.

More specifics here on Howard's outing.

No knocks when it counts

The Phillies went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position in the two games Sunday. They have hit .194 with RISP this season.

Braves' best players woke up

To win this series, the Phillies needed Freeman and Acuña to stay cold for just a few more days. They entered Sunday hitting a combined .207. Freeman went 6 for 8 in the doubleheader with a double, triple and homer. Acuña went 5 for 8 with three homers. Combined, that's 11 for 16 with four homers, a double, triple and eight RBI. Good grief.

At least Hoskins built a little confidence

Rhys Hoskins, who entered the second game Sunday hitting .111 (3 for 27), went 2 for 2 with a double and an HBP. He's hitting .172, though with a .429 on-base percentage. Every little thing counts right now for Hoskins, who threw his arms up in the air to thank the Baseball Gods after he finally picked up that first hit Sunday. 

Up next

Aaron Nola (0-1, 3.97) starts the series finale Monday night at 6:05 against Braves lefty Sean Newcomb (0-1, 6.57).

Subscribe and rate the Phillies Talk podcast:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube


More on the Phillies