Marquis hoping first impression won’t be lasting one

Some free agents sign a big deal and could care less if they can’t fulfill their part of the bargain. They’re content, when injured, to sit on the sidelines - often far away from their teammates - and check for the sizable direct deposits that show up every two weeks. Jason Marquis isn’t one of them. When he got hurt last season, after signing a two-year, $15 million deal to anchor a decidedly youthful Nationals rotation, the veteran right-hander adopted a workaholic mentality to get back on the mound.

Trouble was, his yeoman’s effort to recover from right elbow surgery went largely unnoticed, which was fine with Marquis. Fans frustrated by his early-season struggles dogged the front office for wasting funds and wondered why there was no return on the investment. But they didn’t see what was happening behind the scenes. While Marquis was working back through four minor league levels in the Washington organization, the rest of the baseball universe was focused on Stephen Strasburg’s ascension to the majors, then rubbernecked as the former No. 1 pick’s promising career was derailed by Tommy John surgery.

By the time Strasburg walked off the field at Citizens Bank Park on Aug. 21 holding his arm in obvious pain, Marquis was starting an impressive last six weeks of an otherwise unsatisfying season. Though he made a career-low 13 starts en route to a 2-9 record and career-worst 6.60 ERA, Marquis quietly made strides down the stretch as he reasserted himself as a reliable starting pitcher.

From Aug. 20 to the end of the season, Marquis made eight starts and went 2-4 with a 3.61 ERA. Five times, he went at least six innings and surrendered three or less earned runs - getting credit for a quality start. Once, he fell one-third of an inning short of that mark. And those starts include one clunker: six earned runs in one-third of an inning at Philadelphia in a 9-2 loss Sept. 17. Take out that game and the 32-year-old’s ERA over those final eight outings drops to 2.35, just the kind of efficient pitching the Nats were expecting when they signed Marquis as a free agent.

Marquis was much happier with the end of the season than he was at the beginning of it. Though he’s not the kind of guy who sets realistic goals - Marquis told me in spring training that he thinks he should expect to win every start, so why not plan on 30-some victories if he gets 30-some starting assignments? - Marquis was clearly frustrated by the 0-3 start and 20.52 ERA he compiled before he went to the disabled list in April. Three months later, he was more like his old self, though fans rarely saw any news in the interim but his 10 rehab starts.

Marquis would shuttle between his New York home, Nationals Park and minor league outposts like Single-A Potomac in Woodbridge, Va., or Viera, Fla., home of the Nats’ Gulf Coast League affiliate to get in his work. When he was in D.C., he’d only reluctantly speak of his progress, believing that the baby steps he was taking were merely the means to an end.

Only when he was back in the majors did Marquis think he’d accomplished anything, and only then were his efforts contextualized into his experience in 10 big league seasons. Marquis, who is Jewish, was so bent on making good on the Nationals’ investment in him that pitching on the first night of Yom Kippur, his religion’s most holy day, was brushed off as no big deal, an occupational hazard for a professional ballplayer. He kept his focus on improving, and by season’s end, he had whittled h is once-inflated ERA by more than two-thirds.

By the time Marquis returned from his injury, his spot as the staff sage had been assumed by LIvan Hernandez, who parlayed a spring training invite into a guaranteed deal through 2011. Next season, while Strasburg is recovering from his ligament replacement procedure, the presence of Hernandez and Marquis gives the Nationals a firm pair of mentors who should be able to counterbalance the growing pains for the remainder of the rotation. And if some starting pitchers perform better than expected, it makes it easier to turn Marquis or Hernandez into a couple of prospects at the trading deadline.