Marquis tosses complete-game two-hitter

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Jason Marquis was the latest beneficiary of the Washington Nationals' propensity for making mediocre pitchers feel good and look good.

Facing the worst offense in the majors, Marquis morphed from unwatchable to unhittable Saturday, snapping a seven-start losing streak by throwing his first career shutout to lead the St. Louis Cardinals past Washington 6-0.

He allowed two harmless singles, didn't walk a batter and struck out three in improving to 10-13 and lowering his ERA from 4.67 to 4.42. Since July 20, he had been 0-7 with a 7.24 ERA.

"When you go through a streak like that, you start doubting yourself," said Marquis, pushed up a day in the rotation because of Mark Mulder's stiff neck. "You start changing your game plan and start to be a little too tentative. You stop being aggressive in the strike zone. You start trying to make perfect pitches on the
black and fall behind on the count."

That was never a problem Saturday in what was probably a new low for the Nationals. It was the seventh time they've been shut out but the first time they only managed fewer than three hits. And they never tried to mix things up, with a bunt, say, or by taking extra pitches. Marquis only needed 91.

"We didn't really string anything together and put pressure on him," said outfielder Marlon Byrd, who had a two-out single in the sixth. "He got real comfortable, settled in."

Marquis retired the first seven batters, allowed a grounded single to left by the .195-hitting Cristian Guzman in the third and then had two separate runs of getting 10 straight Nationals out.

The right-hander did benefit from a couple nice plays -- right fielder John Rodriguez jumped against the fence to catch a drive by Brian Schneider -- but otherwise it was simply a case of Washington doing little to make a pitcher sweat.

"It's big, because we're going to need it down the road," Albert Pujols said, "hopefully in the playoffs."

While the Cardinals own the best record in baseball, the Nationals are struggling in the NL wild-card standings. They've won at least two games in a row just twice since the All-Star break and dropped from first to last in the NL East.

The reason is the lack of offense. Washington began the day last in the big leagues in batting average (.253), slugging percentage (.390), and runs (505). Only one position player on the roster is hitting above .300: Jose Guillen, who went 0-for-3 and dropped to .301.

In Washington's prior series, it was Cincinnati's Luke Hudson
and Brandon Claussen who came to RFK Stadium with records at .500 or worse and turned in gems.

"I just can't figure this team out. I really can't," manager Frank Robinson said. "The more a pitcher struggles, or the higher the ERA is, the worse we do."

What particularly irked Robinson was that his club looked so much less energized than Friday, when it won the series opener 4-1.

"That's what I don't understand," he said.

The Cardinals scored four runs in four innings off Matt White (0-1), who was called up to make his first career start in the majors and sent right back to Triple-A New Orleans afterward.

David Eckstein drove in one of those runs and then added a two-run homer in the seventh off Mike Stanton. Eckstein squared up as if to bunt but then pulled his bat back and sent a drive down the left field line.

"I do it all the time in BP," the shortstop said. "You're not trying to hit it out. You're just trying to hit it in the air."

One thing the Nationals have been able to count on in 2005 has been pitching. But with Ryan Drese on the disabled list, and Tony Armas Jr. having shoulder trouble, White made his first appearance in the majors since six relief appearances in 2003.

Dragging his foot across the third base line as he jogged from the dugout to the mound each inning, White was OK for two innings. But in the third, he gave up a single to Abraham Nunez, threw a wild pitch, walked Eckstein, hit Jim Edmonds and then gave up a sacrifice fly to Pujols for the first run.

After walking Yadier Molina on four pitches and reloading the bases, White gave up So Taguchi's two-run liner to left, making it 3-0. White was done after the fourth, when he gave up Eckstein's RBI single.

"All in all, I wouldn't call it a bad outing," Robinson said. "It was a short outing."

Game notes
Marquis had never gone more than 8 1/3 innings in 98 career starts. ... Mulder said he wasn't sure why his neck tightened up Friday. He hopes to be able to pitch Sunday. If he can't, Brad Thompson would probably start.