In many respects, the season cannot get over quickly enough for the Baltimore Orioles, who have assured themselves of a ninth straight losing season. September crowds at Camden Yards have been sparse, and those who bother to show up at all are often rooting for the visiting Yankees or Red Sox.
But the 2006 season has not been a total loss for the O's. Chris Ray has emerged as the team's closer and Adam Loewen, healthy again, has confirmed his promise. But perhaps most significantly, outfielder Nick Markakis has shown himself to be a cornerstone of the O's future.
Entering Thursday, Markakis, 22, was hitting .305 with 14 homers and 57 RBI. Since June 28, he has hit .365, and in that span only two American League players have hit for a higher average -- Vladimir Guerrero and Justin Morneau.
"Every challenge we've given him," said vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette, "he's blown through. We thought if he hit .270 with 10 homers and 40 or so RBI, that would be pretty good for a rookie. He's done better. We hit him in the No. 2 spot, and he handled that well enough that he's hitting third. He's been everything we hoped he would be -- and more."
It took some time, however, for Markakis to make his mark. A surprise addition to the Opening Day roster, Markakis struggled in the first three months, barely keeping his average above .200.
Manager Sam Perlozzo wisely hit the left-handed hitting Markakis ninth and held him out against tough lefties, not wanting to add any unnecessary pressure.
"You don't want to bury a young player like that," Perlozzo said. "Even when he struggled, though, we thought we were absolutely on the money [in our projections for him]."
Even as Markakis battled to hit his weight, what caught the Orioles' eye was his determination and composure.
"Never once did we see him lose any confidence or give up," Perlozzo said.
"He never made any excuses," Orioles hitting instructor Terry Crowley said. "It's easy to show up and work hard when you're hitting .330. It's a little tougher when you're fighting to stay over .200. But he was never late for extra hitting and never less than enthusiastic."
Markakis credits Crowley with helping him maintain his confidence. The veteran coach was so relentlessly supportive that the rookie could find something positive in an 0-for-4 night.
That Markakis was slow to come around shouldn't have been much of a surprise. For one thing, he was a slow starter during his three minor league seasons. For another, Markakis had played only 30 games at Double-A before skipping Triple-A entirely.
"All of a sudden," Crowley said, "he found himself in the deep end of the pool. It was probably the first time he'd ever struggled."
So he worked. Then worked some more. Crowley suggested he lower his hands a bit and curtail some movement. Taken together, the changes enabled Markakis to get to fastballs quicker.
"The biggest thing at this level," Markakis said, "is making adjustments to pitchers because they're always making them on you."
In early July, with Markakis seemingly making little progress, Perlozzo, Duquette and Orioles executive Mike Flanagan convened to discuss Markakis. It was determined that the outfielder would be in the lineup every day, regardless of pitcher or opponent, to accelerate the evaluation process.
Markakis responded positively. He hit .403 with two homers and 10 RBI in July. In August, he continued to stroke the ball and began driving it for more power, hitting .354 for the month while adding 10 homers and 26 RBI. The 10 homers set a team record for most by a rookie in a calendar month; only 10 major league rookies had ever reached double figures in homers for a single month.
"He's made some incredible adjustments," teammate Kevin Millar said. "They let him battle out of it, and he did. It's nice to see that. He reminds me of a young Derrek Lee [another one-time teammate]. They stayed level. Whether they were hitting .200 or .400, you couldn't tell. They cared, but they didn't throw the helmet when they were going bad, and they didn't get giddy when they were going good."
"It's rare that you see a young guy turn a season around like that," said Crowley.
"I think he's going to be a middle-of-the-lineup player," Duquette said.
In another year, Markakis might also be the American League Rookie of the Year. But this season the league has been almost overrun with dominant rookie pitchers, and the presence of Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano means that Markakis probably won't finish in the top three.
"It would definitely be an honor [to be in that select group]," Markakis said, "but the main thing is helping to contribute to the team."
Markakis has done more than that. For an organization that traditionally has been too impatient with its own prospects and too quick to sign veteran free agents, his rapid ascent can only have a positive effect on other players in the system.
"As I understand it," said Duquette, finishing his first year with the O's, "we haven't taken this approach here much. When guys at the minor league level see you bringing in veterans and trading off prospects, it breeds a defeatist attitude. What's the use? But when they see a guy who they played with getting here and establishing himself the way Nick has, it's a big morale booster. They start to think that they can do it, too."
Of course, there aren't many like Markakis -- in the Baltimore system or anywhere else, for that matter.
"Let me tell you something," Crowley said. "I've been doing this for a long time. And this kid's for real."
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.