Orioles overcoming obstacles

BALTIMORE -- When Baltimore Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis took a CC Sabathia fastball off the hand Saturday night, the sting reverberated well beyond the pain in his broken left thumb.

The Orioles will miss Markakis in the leadoff spot because he was so darned proficient at the role this season. They also feel a shared sense of regret for him because he has played so many meaningless September games at Camden Yards since he arrived in Baltimore in 2006. If there were any justice, Markakis would have a chance to play the outfield down the stretch when this place isn't an echo chamber and every night isn't Guaranteed-Catch-a-Foul-Ball night.

"I've only been here a month, but I've played against him and seen him play plenty," teammate Nate McLouth said. "You know what kind of a hard-nosed player he is. He's been through the tough times here, and you feel for a person who's been through that and doesn't get to experience this exciting time here. It's tough on a personal level to see that happen."

Yet life goes on, and sentiment gives way to the task at hand. On the same day Markakis had a pin inserted in his hand and called manager Buck Showalter from a Sarasota, Fla., hospital with a health update, the Orioles left the New York Yankees behind and turned their attention to the next American League East challenge.

Another day. Another injury. Another uplifting, logic-defying step toward the team's first playoff appearance since 1997.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy hit two homers and drove in five runs, and the Orioles spanked the Tampa Bay Rays 9-2 on Tuesday night to move back into a first-place tie with the Yankees in the AL East. But it was hard to crank up the music in the clubhouse when they were busy assessing the damage. The latest setback for Baltimore: Starter Jason Hammel, who recently returned to the rotation after missing almost two months because of right knee surgery, reinjured the knee and had to leave the game with two outs in the fourth inning.

Hammel said he felt a "very sharp pain" in the knee on a pitch to Evan Longoria. Although he stayed in the game and threw six more pitches, the discomfort became too much to endure. Hammel plans to go for an MRI on Wednesday and hopes doctors will tell him his issues are a product of scar tissue. But he sure sounded like a guy who was trying to convince himself things were fine despite evidence to the contrary.

"For it to feel the same as it did before -- I don't know what the hell is going on," Hammel said. "When I'm standing or moving straight forward, it's fine. When there's any lateral movement, it feels like I'm getting stabbed in the leg."

If Hammel is out of commission, Showalter's rotation most likely will consist of Joe Saunders, Wei-Yin Chen, Zach Britton, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, with Randy Wolf, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson and Brian Matusz available to start in a pinch. If that group sounds less than contender-worthy, you clearly haven't been watching the Orioles, who keep finding a way to get by regardless of expectations. There's an emotion coursing through the Camden Yards home dugout these days, and it isn't self-pity.

"I'm not surprised by anything these guys do," Showalter said. "I'm just fortunate to have a good seat to watch it. They're a very professional, hard-driving group that has their mind set on a goal here."

Showalter routinely points out that his Baltimore players are a grounded bunch with a firm grip on reality. That observation runs contrary to the numbers, which seem to indicate the Orioles are living a baseball fantasy. They are 17 games over .500 even though they've scored 617 runs and allowed 639 this season. Entering the Tampa Bay series, Coolstandings.com ranked their playoff chances at a less-than-scintillating 40.1 percent.

In a nutshell, the cold, hard facts say the Orioles shouldn't be any good. They just keep winning in spite of the facts.

Markakis was a big part of the Orioles' success before his unfortunate encounter with Sabathia. Since Showalter inserted him in the leadoff spot after the All-Star break, he had hit .335 (74-for-221) with an .879 OPS to help Baltimore go on a 33-21 run.

With Markakis out of the lineup, more of the offensive burden will fall on center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and Hardy, a solid citizen who provides stability with the glove and welcome power at the plate. With his two homers Tuesday, Hardy has surpassed 20 homers four times in the past six seasons.

"J.J. is just such a steady human being," Showalter said. "That part means as much as what he does statistically. I don't want to get too deep, but he's a very consistent guy. You can be very confident every day in what he's going to give you when he walks through the door."

For several other players on the Baltimore roster, it's all about second, third and fourth chances. Consider the inspirational story of outfielder Lew Ford, a 36-year-old vagabond who has played for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, Oaxaca in the Mexican League and the Long Island Ducks in independent ball in recent years. Adoring fans at Camden Yards serenade him with chants of "Lew!" every time he catches a fly ball or leaves the on-deck circle for the batter's box.

McLouth, who signed with Baltimore in June after being released by Pittsburgh, has been thrust into the leadoff spot with the injury to Markakis. He contributed two singles, two runs scored and a stolen base Tuesday, and made a fine running catch at the wall to take an extra-base hit from Ben Francisco.

During his month in Baltimore, McLouth has seen glimpses of a city dying to fall back in love with its baseball team. The Orioles averaged more than 43,000 fans per game for their four-game split with the Yankees over the weekend and are closing in on 2 million fans for the first time since 2007.

"When a team hasn't won for a long time, it might be a little hard to regain the trust of the fan base, and rightfully so," McLouth said. "But the deeper you go with this thing and the closer the finish line gets, I think everybody starts to get a little more excited -- including the fans."

McLouth knows all about losing from two separate tours in Pittsburgh. But as he's quick to remind people, he grew up in the state of Michigan following a sad-sack football team that demoralized its fan base before breaking through as a playoff entity in 2011.

"I've been a Lions fans my whole life, too," he said.

The Orioles will either see this fairy tale through to the finish or die trying. Regardless of what happens, they have made it a summer to savor in Baltimore.