ATLANTA -- The Nationals certainly haven't gotten the victories they expected from Jason Marquis this season. But his recent starts after spending about three months on the disabled list definitely give hope for next season.

Marquis, who will start Friday in Philadelphia, has pitched well in his past five starts, although he has just a 2-3 record to show for it. An example of his tough luck came Saturday, when he took the loss against the Marlins despite striking out eight and giving up just two runs over six innings.

"He's been real good," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's doing what we thought he'd do when we signed him. He's giving us innings. He's pitching with confidence [now] that his arm feels good."

Marquis, 32, signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the Nationals as a free agent after winning 15 games last season with the Rockies. But his elbow started aching midway through Spring Training, and he had to go on the disabled list after three regular-season starts in which he was 0-3 with a 20.52 ERA.

The right-hander is 2-5 with a 3.77 ERA in seven starts since coming off the DL. He has won two of his past three decisions and has allowed only eight runs over 30 innings in his past five outings.

"So far, so good," Marquis said. "My elbow is feeling better and better."

Marquis is 0-3 against the Phillies this season, but two of the losses were before he went on DL. He allowed four hits and a run over five innings on Aug. 20 in his most recent start against them.

Marquis will pitch on Friday even though he is Jewish and it will be Kol Nidre, the start of Yom Kippur. He previously pitched on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, while with the Braves and Cubs.

"I made the decision when I came up to the Majors that I wouldn't miss any starts," Marquis said. "Your team expects you to do your job. That's the approach I take."

Harper ready for first action in pros

ATLANTA -- It's as informal a setting as you can get, but Bryce Harper will take his first professional steps on the road to the Majors this weekend with the start of the Nationals' instructional league in Viera, Fla.

Harper, who doesn't turn 18 until Oct. 16, was the No. 1 pick in the First-Year Player Draft and signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract just before the Aug. 17 deadline, missing a chance to start his career in the Minors this season.

"It's very important," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said when asked about the instructional league. "We've got great instructors down there. ... We're confident that Bryce Harper will get started on the right foot. ... But [the instructional league] is secondary to getting out there and playing a full season [in the Minors]."

Just a rookie, Desmond shows strength

ATLANTA -- Two days after striking out four times in a game, Ian Desmond found himself hitting third in the Nationals lineup Wednesday in the series finale against the Braves.

Manager Jim Riggleman had approached the shortstop after Monday's game and asked if he'd like to take a day off to recoup. But Desmond said no and was 2-for-4 with a single and his 10th homer in the 6-0 victory Tuesday night.

"I've been 0-for-4 before. I've had four strikeouts before," the rookie said. "If that's going to stop you, you're not going to be a big leaguer. I just went back out there, put it behind me. It was a new day."

Desmond has impressed Riggleman with his mental toughness all season and he has already displayed leadership qualities at age 24.

"He's had some bad days," Riggleman said. "He's had some strikeout days and he's had some days where he made a couple of errors. But every day he comes in with his head up and ready to take on the next challenge."

Riggleman shuffled the lineup Wednesday because Adam Dunn got time off with lefty Mike Minor starting for the Braves. Utility infielder Alberto Gonzalez filled in at first base and right fielder Mike Morse hit fifth in the lineup behind Ryan Zimmerman.

Ramos getting his chance next to Pudge

ATLANTA -- The Nationals have a catching rotation as well as a pitching rotation. Wilson Ramos got the start Wednesday behind the plate as he continued to alternate with veteran Ivan Rodriguez.

"Pretty much every other day ... we'll play it that way," manager Jim Riggleman said of his catching rotation. "Both will catch a lot."

Ramos, 23, was acquired from the Twins in the trade for closer Matt Capps and is part of the Nationals' future behind the plate. But Rodriguez, 39, has a year left on the free-agent deal he signed before the start of the season and has had a potential Hall of Fame career.

"We'll get a significant look at Ramos while also allowing Pudge to finish out the year in a manner he deserves," Riggleman said. "He's been a gamer for us back there all year and he's got a future here for next year. We're going to keep both going."

Riggleman has been impressed by Ramos' defense. "The balls in the dirt are blocked and the balls that are strikes are received very well and presented to the umpire," the manager said. "He's a nice catcher."