By the time Jason Marquis took the mound for the second inning on Sunday, he had a six-run lead to play with against the Florida Marlins. That was in part because of an offense that hustled its way into a few runs in the early part of the first inning. But the biggest reason Marquis had a comfortable lead - and one of the main reasons the Nationals had done enough to beat the Marlins by the end of the first inning - was the pitcher himself.
His at-bat in the bottom of the first was a display of savvy hitting; he took two breaking balls from Javier Vazquez, knowing he'd get a fastball on the third pitch of his at-bat. And when Vazquez left it up in the zone, Marquis slapped it down the left field line against an outfield shifted well away from it. The double scored two runs, and though Marquis was thrown out trying to advance to third, the inning ended with Washington up 6-0.
"It's definitely nice (to pitch with a big lead). You can attack the strike zone a little bit more comfortably," Marquis said. "I didn't feel my best today with my rhythm and my delivery, but it allowed me some room for error with my mistakes."
A year ago, Marquis had none of that. The lasting image of his ugly start with the Nationals wasn't him pitching with a big lead, but walking off the mound last April against the Brewers, having dropped the Nationals in a 7-0 hole before he'd recorded an out and before they'd swung at a pitch. He had a 20.52 ERA in his first three starts, later finding out he'd need surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, and when he came back from surgery in August, he lost four more games before finally righting himself near the end of the year.
This year, he's tied for the National League lead in wins.
"You obviously play this game, No. 1 because you love it, and No. 2, to get the respect out of your teammates," Marquis said. "It's nice to know your teammates have your back and feel confident when you're on the mound. That's one of the reasons you play this game."
A quarter of the way through his second season in Washington, Marquis has moved past all of his struggles in 2010 to give the Nationals exactly what they thought they'd get when they signed him to a two-year, $15 million deal after the 2009 Winter Meetings. He's been an effective, if not spectacular starter, posting a 3.54 ERA in eight starts and working at least six innings in all but one of them. And on offense, he's given the Nationals' struggling lineup a surprising pick-me-up.
He's hitting .333 this season with three RBI after going 2-for-3 on Sunday.
"That's a part of his game that has always been there," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Last year, he couldn't do that with no consistent work, with the injury and not getting deep into ballgames. The offensive part of his game, you didn't see it. But this is the way he's swung the bat on previous clubs he's been on."
That part of Marquis' game stems from his upbringing in the Atlanta Braves organization, where he pitched on teams with future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Aside from being elite pitchers, all three were capable hitters; Smoltz and Glavine won three combined Silver Slugger Awards in their careers, and Maddux had a .171 career average - a solid mark for a pitcher.
With a career .202 average before Sunday, Marquis has established himself as one of the better-hitting pitchers in the game. It's a subtle thing, but the 32-year-old knows what a difference it can make.
"I think there's some guys who really don't take interest in it, or don't care as much, but to each their own," Marquis said. "I know over the last eight years or so, it's definitely helped me win 10-plus games, with what I do at the plate, whether it's moving a runner over, taking an extra base or driving runners in. Not only does it help your team win, but personally, it helps you, too."
He'll go to Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein for advice, and with Livan Hernandez and Jordan Zimmermann in the Nationals' rotation, he's got teammates that can be effective at the plate, too.
His next start is scheduled for Friday in Baltimore, where the Nationals will use a designated hitter for the first time. Marquis said he's always tried to lobby to hit in an American League ballpark, but he's only got one career at-bat in an AL park came in 2008 with the Rockies. Manager Jim Riggleman isn't considering letting Marquis hit, and Marquis said "hopefully Matt Stairs can get in there and hit a two-, three-run bomb for me that game."
But eight starts into his second year with the Nationals, it's clear Marquis is providing value in more ways than one.
"I'm a guy who pays attention to detail, not only on the pitching side, but within the game itself," Marquis said. "I've been around some Hall of Fame-quality ballplayers, and I try to take bits and pieces from all of them. It's another part of the game - obviously not the most important part for me. But when I'm standing in the box, it is the most important part."