The edge of the strike zone was home to Jason Marquis for the first 11 seasons of his major league career. The right-hander wanted each of the 22,627 pitches he threw to be perfect.
That, he now admits, was impossible.
So Marquis changed his approach. Instead of trying to be too fine, he would put the ball over the plate, trust his defense and try to pitch deep into each game.
That was how Marquis helped the Washington Nationals top the Milwaukee Brewers 8-4 Sunday at Nationals Park in the first game of a doubleheader.
The workmanlike pitching continued in the second game as right-hander Livan Hernandez sparked a 5-1 win. Hernandez limited the Brewers to one run and six hits over seven innings, striking out three.
Jerry Hairston Jr. went 3-for-3 and scored twice in the nightcap, and Danny Espinosa delivered a bases-clearing triple in the seventh.
Marquis said he was inspired to make the change from years of observing former teammates Chris Carpenter, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Matt Morris.
"I feel a lot more relaxed with that mindset, knowing that I'm just trying to throw strikes and let my defense help me out," the right-hander said. "I want to keep that approach every time I take the ball."
What the new style looks like is Marquis skating in and out of trouble, as he scattered nine hits and two runs over seven innings Sunday. It isn't always pretty. But he retired 13 Brewers via ground balls, including a double play. Only four outs came in the air.
Brewers slugger Prince Fielder was the case study. The powerful left-hander struck out swinging in the first inning then grounded out twice to first baseman Adam LaRoche. Marquis didn't fool around on the edges where Fielder could crush a pitch. The ball stayed on the ground.
That mirrors Marquis' start to the season, where he's coaxed 29 ground ball outs to 16 from fly balls.
In the process, Marquis extended the Nationals' streak of having a starting pitcher go at least five innings to 14 games.
"That was a classic type of Marquis performance when he's healthy," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "He had a little trouble early and it could've gotten ugly. But we played great defense."
Before his slider sharpened up, Marquis surrendered eight hits in the first four innings. But he wriggled out of trouble. Limiting the big inning is part of his focus. Doing so bought time for the Nationals' reeling offense - which entered the game with baseball's worst batting average and slugging percentage - to come untracked.
Espinosa and Ivan Rodriguez each smacked three-run home runs off Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo as part of an 11-hit outburst. Rodriguez's shot chased Gallardo in the sixth inning, after he gave up 10 hits and seven runs.
And Marquis' slider came around, his pitches moved more and the ball stayed down. Before exiting with one on and no outs in the eighth, Marquis retired eight of 10 batters via ground balls. The Brewers stranded 10 runners.
"My focus now is pounding the bottom of the strike zone," Marquis said. "It's just my experience watching past guys I've played with and thinking about what they did, the mindset they had when they took the ball."
Marquis' effort was part of the Nationals' unexpected string of outings from the starting rotation. The Colorado Rockies are baseball's only other team to have their starters pitch at least five innings in each game.
"We're trying to do our part to keep our team in the game," Marquis said. "We've got to pick our team up. It's that time of year."
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By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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