KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Jason Marquis may yet have the last word, but in his first spring appearance he didn't separate himself from the pack fighting for the fifth starter's job.
Marquis, who refuses to even acknowledge the competition from Horacio Ramirez, Jung Bong, Andy Pratt, and Trey Hodges, pitched two innings in Monday's 5-2 Braves' loss to the Houston Astros at Osceola County Stadium and yielded two hits, two walks, and one run.
"I'm happy with it," said Marquis, who has been brought along slowly after experiencing shoulder pain last fall. "I pretty much kept the ball down. I felt comfortable, there was no pain. Everything was about where I wanted it to be."
Marquis was solid, but he didn't match the scoreless performances Ramirez, Pratt, and Hodges offered in their turns on the mound during the first week of exhibition games. That doesn't mean he's losing the battle, but manager Bobby Cox wants to see more from him.
"I didn't know if he was going to air it out today or not and he did," Cox said. "He had darn good command for not pitching in a long time and he had an explosive fastball. It's a good sign."
Cox concedes that Marquis is the leading candidate to be the fifth starter, but he's not going to hand the 24-year-old righthander the job based on last year's performance. Marquis was 6-4 with a 3.95 ERA in the first half, but 2-5 with a 6.97 ERA after the All-Star break, and it's that last impression that's weighing on Cox's mind.
"He was the guy last year and he's young. Somebody is going to have to knock him off it," Cox said. "There's always a challenge and competition. We've got some guys pushing."
Not in Marquis' mind. He expressed surprise last week when Cox said the job wasn't his automatically, and he reiterated that feeling Monday.
"I still don't think there's a challenge (from other pitchers)," he said. "I try to do my best and if it they don't think my best is good enough there's nothing I can do about it. That doesn't drive me. What drives me is my own inner drive to succeed. I compete with myself. You can't compare yourself to other guys."
Perhaps he can't, but Cox certainly can. Marquis showed a good fastball to the Astros, but he wasn't as dominant as Ramirez was Friday against the Phillies. Cox, who has been briefed on Ramirez's outstanding performance in the Arizona Fall League, is keeping a close eye on the 23-year-old lefthander. He seems willing to add him to the rotation if Marquis doesn't win the job.
Marquis, who didn't face a hitter until last week when he pitched batting practice, took over for starter Russ Ortiz in the third. He threw all fastballs in his first inning, then mixed in sliders and a couple of changeups in the fourth. More important than his velocity and command was what pitching coach Leo Mazzone has termed "getting down the hill."
Simply, Mazzone wants Marquis to drive off the mound and "get through the ball."
"Driving toward the plate obviously takes a lot of pressure off your arm," Marquis said. "Today I was letting go of a few pitches like I should be."
Said Mazzone: "The ball was coming out of his hand real good. That's what we want."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.