on the Cubs
CHICAGO | It's easy to dismiss Jason Marquis as a mediocre pitcher who always fades badly in the second half.
The right-hander has put up some awfully ugly overall numbers in the last few seasons as August blends into September, resulting in Marquis relegated to spectator status during the playoff forays of his last two teams, the Cubs and Cardinals.
Yet, as usual, statistics don't tell the entire story. I've witnessed the very best and worst of Marquis in absolute contrast.
The worst came June 21, 2006, when Tony La Russa left him in to save a weary bullpen and absorb a fearsome battering of 13 runs and 14 hits in five innings against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. The best were several games throughout the 2007 season, such as a July 1 victory over the Brewers here, when Marquis would force opponents to harmlessly beat the ball into the ground. Getting 11 or 12 ground-ball outs in six innings expertly mimicked Greg Maddux, Marquis' first mentor with the Braves.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella, aggravated at Marquis last September and in briefly in spring training when the pitcher issued a "pitch-me-or-trade me" request, does not hold grudges. He awarded Marquis a starting rotation slot over an effective Jon Lieber, with his first outing of the season scheduled today at Wrigley Field.
"When he's pitching well, he's down in the zone," Piniella said. "He's got sink to it. The ball is a little heavier than when it's up. He's getting a lot of ground balls. At the same time, he's getting his breaking ball over.
"That's when he's at his best."
Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, a Homewood-Flossmoor alum, has said going back to last season that Marquis has to use other pitches besides a sinker -- which will not always sink due to the laws of baseball -- to be effective.
Marquis' own explanations for his all-over-the-place performances have been little better than typical player clichés -- until Friday.
"Obviously, human error factor comes in," Marquis said. "We're not robots. We can't program ourselves to repeat the same delivery over and over again. We strive and work our hardest to do that. They're going to be some days where you feel great and within that delivery you feel everything's going accordingly.
"More importantly, on the days where you're not feeling that way, instead of focusing on that, you should really just focus on each pitch."
Obviously, Marquis has extra motivation with Lieber available to take his spot at any time and GM Jim Hendry panting to trade his starting-pitching excess.
His challenge is very simple in conception, but still tough in execution. The Cubs will have one nifty pitcher if he does it.
George Castle's "Diamond Gems" baseball show airs at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WIMS-AM (1420).
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at DGemsNet@aol.com.