By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; D02
VIERA, FLA. -- John Lannan's spring training debut came Saturday, and Jason Marquis will follow him Sunday. The Washington Nationals planned for them to pitch those precise days because of what they have known since the dead of winter: Lannan and Marquis, in some order, will top their rotation. Just knowing that, for the Nationals, is something new and different.
The Nationals are leaning toward naming John Lannan their opening day starter, but the decision has not been finalized, Manager Jim Riggleman said. The Nationals have aligned their rotation to let Lannan pitch April 5 versus the Philadelphia Phillies, but they could also give the ball to Marquis.
"The likelihood is that Lannan will pitch," Riggleman said. "We feel comfortable with either one of those guys pitching the first game."
Whatever the order, the offseason addition of Marquis and the continued maturation of Lannan -- who allowed two runs in two innings in his debut -- will provide the Nationals the most reliable 1-2 combination they have ever had to begin a season. Lannan is the only Nationals pitcher with 120 innings in a season to finish with a sub-4.00 ERA since 2005. Marquis is a reigning all-star. In tandem, they represent an upgrade over any other Nationals season.
"It's definitely an honor to get the ball," Marquis said. "But either way they decide, they can't make a wrong decision."
Lannan, 25, represents a homegrown choice for opening day at Nationals Park, a player the Nationals drafted and developed into a frontline starter who is entering his third season. Marquis, 31, was an all-star with the Colorado Rockies last season and is a 10-year major league veteran.
Lannan started on opening day last season against the Marlins and lasted only three innings, surrendering six earned runs on six hits, including two home runs. In four starts against Philadelphia last year, Lannan went 0-3 and allowed 13 earned runs in 22 1/3 innings. Marquis won his lone start against the Phillies, allowing two runs on five hits in seven inning.
The pitchers, both New York natives, had remarkably similar statistics last season -- Lannan had a 3.91 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP (walks and hits per inning), while Marquis had a 4.03 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. They both exceeded 200 innings.
No matter the order in which they begin the season, the addition of Marquis provides a stable 1-2 combination at the front of the Nationals rotation. In the past four years, the Nationals' first two starters, working back from last season, have won 11, seven, five, and 10 games.
The Nationals' short history is littered with failed No. 1 and No. 2 starters. In 2007, John Patterson and Shawn Hill, doomed by injury, won five games between them. In 2008, Odalis Pérez came to spring training as a non-roster invitee and wound up starting on opening day; he went 7-12 with a 4.34 ERA. Matt Chico followed Pérez -- he went 0-6 before undergoing season-ending surgery. When their alleged best pitchers faltered, it strained the bullpen. This year promises to be different.
"You have two guys that are going to give you six, seven innings," catcher Wil Nieves said. "That's going to be good for the bullpen. When you get them, you expect to win. It is huge to have two guys like that, that we know we're going to have a pretty good chance of winning that day."
For all the Nationals' personnel maneuvering this offseason, Marquis may have been the most significant addition. The Nationals needed a frontline starter to inject legitimacy into the top of their rotation. Marquis wanted to play in the National League, preferably on the East Coast. They struck a deal before Christmas.
"Coming to Washington was a pretty easy decision," Marquis said. "They showed the same interest right from the get-go. There was no hesitation. There was no stalling. It was mutual interest in both ends. When you feel wanted, it makes your decision a lot easier."
Marquis, even before throwing his first pitch, has quickly established himself as a staff anchor. The son of an educator mother and a businessman father who worked 12-hour days, Marquis prides himself on work ethic. He carries himself like a New Yorker, there to perform the task at hand, nothing extra.
"Every time I throw a baseball, it's with a purpose," Marquis said. "It's not just to throw. It's not just to get loose. It's that focus, that mental edge, that helps you more than anything be consistent."
"He's a pro," Riggleman said. "You really like having those guys, kind of low-maintenance guys. They're accountable. You don't have to put a lot of attention on them. Put them out there, let them do their work."
For Marquis, that may include more than pitching. Riggleman said Marquis may pinch-hit or pinch-run this season if the right situation arises. Known as a pitcher who can hit, Marquis has five career home runs and a .202 batting average.
"I feel like I'm an athlete who can pitch," Marquis said. "I pride myself on being the best I can be at anything. It's something that's helped me win a lot of ballgames over these past six years. Why stop now?"