By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 11:44 PM
PITTSBURGH - Progress is relative, and in the sustained drudge of a losing baseball season it can sneak up on you. A 59th win can be nothing important, or it can represent a small step toward respectability. A fourth consecutive useful start from a 10-year veteran can be routine, or it can salvage one season and spark hope for the next.
The Washington Nationals are 20 games out of first place, 19 games below .500. It can be easy to forget that they really have improved this year, and a reminder revealed itself Sunday.
As Jason Marquis further asserted his effectiveness and their offense provided another outburst against Pittsburgh's hapless staff, the Nationals beat the Pirates, 8-1, to claim their 59th victory of the season, matching their total from the previous two seasons with 25 games to go.
This weekend, the Nationals went into another team's stadium, found the Pirates every bit as dreadful as advertised and won a road series, an accomplishment noteworthy not for its degree of difficulty but its for rarity. The Nationals had played 17 series on the road since mid-May, and they had not taken one until Sunday afternoon at PNC Park before 18,057.
Adam Dunn roped his 34th home run of the season, one homer behind Albert Pujols for the National League lead, and, in an encouraging sign for next season, Marquis submitted his fourth straight strong start. Marquis is 2-7 with a 7.14 ERA this season, but he showed again that, when healthy, he may help stabilize Washington's rotation in 2011.
"He's had several outings where, this is the guy we thought we were going to get," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "If we get this kind of pitching, then we'd be very happy with that. And I think we will get it if he's healthy."
The pitching matchup Sunday, on paper, would have made any pitching coach shudder. Pirates starter Charlie Morton was 1-10 with a 10.13 ERA, Marquis 1-7 with an 8.13 ERA. Only one of them, though, has turned his season around.
On Sunday, Marquis earned his second straight win, his second with the Nationals.
After his horrendous, injury-marred season, Marquis provided reason to think that next season, the second year of his two-year, $15 million deal, he will contribute like he thought he would this year.
In the first five starts of his season and his Nationals tenure, Marquis compiled a 14.33 ERA. All things considered, he may have been the most disappointing player in the major leagues. He felt embarrassed by his performance, but he spoke with people close to him and realized he needed to, in one sense, disregard his performance. He had pitched with bone chips in his right elbow that would require surgery to remove.
"That didn't reflect who I was, because I was hurt," Marquis said. "If I was feeling good and I had that ERA, that gives me something to think about. That wasn't Jason Marquis. I feel like since I came back, this is what they signed me for."
In his last four starts, Marquis has worked to redeem his beginning. He has a 2.25 ERA in those starts, allowing 21 hits and 10 walks in 24 innings over the span. He can feel his sinker moving more each start, and he is getting ahead in the count more often.
"Start by start, I feel like I'm getting closer, getting more consistent," Marquis said. "I feel like Jason Marquis more and more, day by day."
While Marquis stayed on his streak, so did the Nationals' offense. In their past four games, they've scored 32 runs. Sunday, Ryan Zimmerman went 2 for 5 with four RBI. Ian Desmond continued his torrid second half by going 2 for 3 with a double, raising his batting average for the season - which at one point hovered close to .250 - to .289.
"We're swinging the bats like we're capable of doing," Dunn said.
Leading off the fourth inning, Dunn launched a pitch from Morton into the first rows of the left field stands. Dunn's fifth opposite-field home run this season gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead and sparked a five-run inning that knocked Morton out of the game. It also allowed him to creep up on Pujols in pursuit of his first career home run title - a pursuit that doesn't particularly interest him.
"I'm sure I'm top . . . five, maybe?" Dunn asked.
No, actually. Second.
"Oh," he said. "I wouldn't aspire to do it. If it works out that way, it'd be pretty cool. I don't check box scores. Well, I do now. It's football season."