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Dedication to Orioles pays off for Markakis, who makes most of initial foray into postseason

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BALTIMORE — Nick Markakis endured the lean years with the Baltimore Orioles, suffering through one losing season after another during the worst stretch in franchise history.

If that wasn't bad enough, when the Orioles finally turned things around in 2012, Markakis sat out the playoffs with a broken thumb.

Now, nine years into his major league career, the 30-year-old right fielder is getting his first taste of postseason baseball. No one on Baltimore's current roster has spent more time with the team than Markakis, whose loyalty to the Orioles has never wavered since they made him their first-round pick in the 2003 draft.

Even after Baltimore went 70-92, 69-93 and 68-93 in his first three major league seasons, Markakis remained confident he would ultimately reach the playoffs with the Orioles.

So he signed a six-year extension in 2009 during Baltimore's miserable run of 14 straight losing seasons.

"In the past, judging by the development and the direction the team was going, I knew it was just a matter of time," Markakis said. "That's one reason I signed here, because I knew eventually it was going to happen. Good things come from a little hard work, patience and dedication. It was just a matter of plugging in players here and there, and we've got it now."

Using deft moves by executive vice president Dan Duquette and the guidance of manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles are in the AL Championship Series for the first time since 1997. When they open at home Friday night against Kansas City, there will be plenty of fans among the sellout crowd wearing No. 21 jerseys with MARKAKIS on the back.

Markakis, the Orioles' leadoff hitter, ranks among the top 10 in franchise history in games, at-bats, runs, hits, double, RBIs and walks. In his own understated way, he's made a name for himself on lists that include Hall of Fame stars Cal Ripken, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

"You look at the all-time leaders in hits in Baltimore history, that gets your attention," manager Buck Showalter said. "Sometimes we don't completely grasp what we've watching here."

Showalter remembers how disappointed Markakis was in 2012, when the Orioles finally shed their losing ways and earned a spot in the playoffs as a wild card. Markakis' season ended on Sept. 9 when he was struck in the left thumb by a fastball from New York Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia.

"It still bothers me," Showalter said. "That was a kick in the (rear). It reminded all of us how fleeting this is."

PHOTO: Baltimore Orioles' Nick Markakis, front, rounds the bases past Detroit Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine after hitting a two-run home run in the third inning of Game 2 in baseball's AL Division Series in Baltimore, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Baltimore Orioles' Nick Markakis, front, rounds the bases past Detroit Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine after hitting a two-run home run in the third inning of Game 2 in baseball's AL Division Series in Baltimore, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

For Markakis, watching the postseason from the bench didn't come close to the feeling of playing the game.

"Every kid wants to be part of something. When they're doing something and you're not part of it, it makes you appreciate what you're missing," Markakis said. "I understand that now. I had it taken away from in 2012, but here I am with a second chance."

He's making the most of it, too. Markakis had three RBIs and scored three runs in the Orioles' three-game sweep of Detroit in the AL Division Series, the highlight a two-run homer in Game 2.

"I know he's excited about being in the playoffs and we're all excited to have him," Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "He's kind of one of the steady guys we have on this team. He's out there every single day, giving 100 percent playing through pain and all kinds of stuff."

The only time in the last seven years that Markakis failed to play in at least 155 games was that lamentable 2012 season.

"As manager, that's one less thing you have to worry about," Showalter said. "He's such a self-starter — and so consistent."

That contract Markakis signed in 2009 comes with a club option next season. He will receive $17.5 million in 2015, or the Orioles must pay a $2 million buyout.

When he signed in 2009, it was with the notion that he would spend his entire career in Baltimore.

"High risk, high reward. It was a good decision on my part," Markakis said. "I knew what this city was capable of doing and it paid off. I'm enjoying this."

He can't imagine what it would have been like to spurn the extension, become a free agent and sign with the highest bidder.

"There's always an easy way out," Markakis said. "You can sign with the team with the most money and best players and everything else, but I always believe in putting in your time and being loyal to the team that who gave you that opportunity.

"That's what I abide by, that's how I was raised. I wouldn't have it any other way."

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Aug. 25, 2014, file photo, Baltimore Orioles' Nick Markakis high-fives teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the third inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Baltimore. Despite enduring a miserable streak of losing seasons, Markakis never doubted he would participate in the playoffs with the Orioles. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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