- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

Nick Markakis had a pretty unique opportunity last summer.

Markakis, a Woodstock, Ga., native, traveled to Athens to play in the 2004 Summer Olympics — for the home Greek team, not for the United States.

As the host country, Greece was allowed to field an entry in every competition. The only problem: There was no Greek national team or even a governing body to organize one. Enter Baltimore Orioles owner and Greek-American Peter Angelos, who helped finance the team and found the Greek Baseball Federation.

The players didn’t have to be Greek citizens. An ancestor as far back as a great-grandparent would make them eligible. Angelos didn’t have to search long for the team’s star; Markakis was the Orioles’ first-round draft pick in 2003.

“It was a definitely a good experience going over there and playing with top athletes in the world,” Markakis said. “There’s nothing better than that, other than playing in the big leagues. The fans were unbelievable. Nobody expected us to sell out every game, but we did, and it felt really good.”

Markakis went 9-for-26 with a home run as Greece finished seventh in the event, capping a successful year in which he hit .299 with 11 home runs in 96 games at Class Low-A Delmarva. After beginning the year slow, Markakis hit .345 in the two months before leaving for Athens.

For his efforts, Markakis was named Baltimore’s top prospect in the offseason by Baseball America.

“It’s a good honor, but it’s just paper and what’s on the computer,” Markakis said. “You can’t take anything from there. You have to go out and prove you can play every day.”

A left-handed hitter with a classic, smooth stroke, Markakis makes scouts drool because he’s focusing on hitting for just the second full season. He is hitting .291 with two homers and 21 RBI at Frederick, Baltimore’s Carolina League affiliate, this season. Markakis was a dominant pitcher/designated hitter at Young Harris junior college in Georgia, earning Baseball America’s JUCO player of the year honors in 2002 and 2003.

In 2003, Markakis put up great offensive numbers, but he also went 12-0 with 148 strikeouts in 90 innings, and many scouts thought his career was on the mound. Baltimore selected him with the seventh pick overall and decided it liked his bat better.

“I love hitting, and I love pitching,” he said. “The Orioles wanted me to hit, so I’m out here hitting every day, and I love getting to play every day.”

Markakis made a return to the mound last summer for Greece, something that wasn’t met with a lot of enthusiasm by some Orioles officials. He made two appearances in the Olympics out of the bullpen, allowing a run in 21/3 innings. It’s not a surprise scouts love his arm in right field — he hit 94 mph on a radar gun in Athens.

“I hadn’t pitched in over a year at that point, and they kind of tried to rush to get me ready,” Markakis said. “It was kind of risky, but I just went out there and everything worked out.”

Nationals’ farm notes — Injuries have threatened to plague the Nationals, especially in the bullpen. But as the first few weeks of the season have proved, the organization has a lot of relief pitching depth.

Not only have three relievers who began the year at Class AAA New Orleans since joined the parent club with positive results, there are plenty of other viable options at New Orleans and Class AA Harrisburg.

Travis Hughes, a waiver-wire pickup from Texas at the end of spring training, has cooled off after not allowing a run or hit in his first eight appearances for the Zephyrs but still sports a 2.16 ERA and a 14-5 strikeout-walk ratio. Matt White was added as a minor league free agent in December and has 21 strikeouts in 162/3 innings for New Orleans. White spent time in the big leagues as a Rule V draftee in 2003, and being left-handed might help him return this season.

The most intriguing long-term relief prospect at Class AAA is right-hander Josh Karp, the team’s first-round pick in 2001. Karp failed to live up to his lofty billing as a starter, but he has allowed two runs in nine innings in the bullpen this year.

“Karp was moved to the bullpen because we feel it gives him the best opportunity to reach the big leagues,” Nationals director of player development Adam Wogan said. “With his stuff, he could become a quality setup guy and pitch some meaningful innings for us.”

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