The first three starts Jason Marquis made this season for the Nationals were all dreadful, and when an MRI showed bone chips in his right elbow, it was almost a logical salve. Certainly, that had to be why the 31-year-old, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Nationals in December, wasn't performing at the level the Nationals paid for and expected.
His first start back from elbow surgery, too, came with a disclaimer. Marquis lasted just 4 1/3 innings and gave up five runs last Sunday against the Dodgers, but only two of them were earned, and he admitted to pitching coach Steve McCatty afterward that he was nervous before his first start in nearly four months. That can lead to overthrowing, which is a curse for a sinkerballer.
But this? How do the Nationals or Marquis account for his performance in a 9-2 loss to the Diamondbacks, during which he gave up three home runs and a couple more doubles that looked like they were powered by jetpack? Nobody seemed to have an answer for what was plaguing Marquis afterward, except for a good, old-fashioned lack of execution.
"Too many balls up in the zone," Marquis said. "I wasn't able to make the adjustment to get the ball down. The ball wasn't really sinking too much, and you pay for your mistakes."
Marquis said he feels good physically, and his velocity has hovered in the low 90s since his return. But his sinker is still flattening out, and he said he hasn't been able to locate the ball how he wants.
Before he went on the disabled list in late April, Marquis was poring over tape of his best starts early last year for the Rockies, in hopes of fixing whatever was preventing him from sinking the ball then. Both McCatty and he sounded less sure on Saturday night than any mechanical reworking was necessary, since the bone chips in his elbow were functioning like pebbles in a set of gears early this season, keeping him from his truest possible delivery.
On Saturday, Marquis maintained that he's "close" to sinking the ball how he wants. And McCatty said Marquis kept the ball down in both of his bullpen sessions since he's returned from the DL He did so again in warmups on Saturday.
"I can't sit there and go back and say every pitch, you're going to be able to come up with, 'Well, I missed the ball up a little bit because it's a mechanical issue, my foot, my hip, my this and that,'" McCatty said. "His release point was just a little bit too early. That happens to a lot of guys. You've got to focus on getting the ball down."
It stands to reason Marquis will get some time to figure things out, because the Nationals don't really have another option to replace him. They'll likely keep Jordan Zimmermann in the minors until Sept. 1, and neither Yunesky Maya nor Chien-Ming Wang is a good bet to be ready before then.
But more pointedly, they need to gather as much information as they can before making what will be a very tough decision. If Marquis continues to struggle, do they bring him back at $7.5 million next season? Or do they eat the balance of his contract - something the Nationals have typically been loathe to do - and try to build their 2011 rotation without him?
Manager Jim Riggleman wasn't saying how long of a leash Marquis has on Saturday night. But it's clear he's thinking about it.
"Obviously, I wouldn't say that here (whether we'll take him out of the rotation)," Riggleman said. "I'll talk to Steve McCatty and Mike Rizzo before we make a decision like that. I'm anticipating him going back out there, but it's a results-oriented business. We've got to get better results."
The next time Marquis is scheduled to start? Friday night in Philadelphia. His first two starts of the season were against the Phillies, neither one lasting more than 4 1/3 innings, and Marquis gave up six runs on seven hits and two walks the last time he was there.
He'll get the ball again, and another chance to right himself - or at least figure out what's wrong.
Right now, the Nationals don't know.
"It's tough. You can watch all the film you want. It's a feel thing," Marquis said. "Early on, I was batting arm problems, and your body's going to naturally adapt to try and protect your arm. That's not the case right now. I feel good. I've just got to get it done. There's not excuses. I've just got to start being better."