TAMPA, Fla. — Early Friday morning, Chien-Ming Wang stood in the training room at the Washington Nationals’ complex with several sets of eyes examining the strained left hamstring that forced him from Thursday afternoon’s game.
Wang was sent for further testing Thursday evening but Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Friday morning the diagnosis had not changed. Wang is expected to miss “probably a couple of weeks, minimum.”
“You know, even if it was a month, I don’t fool with hamstrings,” Johnson said. “I know how debilitating it can be.”
Johnson declined to put a firm timetable on how long he expected Wang to be down and whether or not it jeopardized his chances of being ready to be in the Nationals’ starting rotation by the time Opening Day comes around. Wang, who dealt with a right hamstring injury in April of 2007, missed the first 18 games of the season that year.
“There’s no timetable so far,” Wang told reporters in Viera, Fla., through translator John Hsu. “The first three days is the golden time for any injury, so we just want to treat it as much as we can and we’ll let the team doctor re-evaluate… We’ll see what we can do from there.”
For Wang, though, the question of readiness centers around more than just his hamstring. Wang spent two years working his way back to the major leagues, rehabbing a devastating shoulder injury and recovering from surgery.
He finally made it back to the big leagues last July and the Nationals were encouraged by the progress he made with his arm strength from start to start last fall. They signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract with incentives this past November and were lining him up to be their No. 5 starter this season.
The Nationals open the 2012 season on April 5 in Chicago but because of a scheduled off day on April 6 they wouldn’t need to use a fifth starter until at least April 10 and they may be able to juggle things so as to delay that to even April 11 in New York. For Wang it will be a matter of being able to build up to enough innings and pitches before that point for the Nationals to feel comfortable throwing him out there the first turn through the rotation.
Johnson didn’t think the hamstring injury would retard his shoulder progress that much.
“He can still throw, he can still play catch and still maintain arm strength and even build on arm strength,” Johnson said. “Looking on the positive side, it’s probably not a bad thing to have a little breather… You know, all this panic mode about ‘He won’t start the season.’ (Shoot) that’s a pretty good ways. That’s damn near four weeks.”
Wang was injured Thursday when he moved to his left to field a ground ball off the bat of New York Yankees catcher Russell Martin but his left leg appeared to buckle as he continued toward the first base bag and he took a nasty spill over the base.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson and trainer Lee Kuntz popped out of the dugout immediately to evaluate Wang but everyone close to the play could tell fairly quickly that there was something significantly wrong with the Taiwanese sinkerballer. Yankees manager Joe Girardi speculated from what he saw that Wang may even have torn the hamstring. For now, the Nationals have avoided that fate.
“I asked him if he was all right,” Martin said. “He kind of shook his head like, ‘I’m not feeling too good.’ He was limping pretty good.”
Nationals first baseman Chad Tracy moved to his right in case the ball went past Wang. But the play, as they practice it, in that situation is for Wang to do what he did: field the ball and continue running it over to the bag. Tracy said he could see Wang’s leg quivering from the pain as the 31-year-old was reluctant to put any weight on it. The Nationals pulled him from the game immediately.
Wang felt fortunate that it wasn’t something more detrimental.
“It could be worse,” Wang said. “Pulled hamstring muscle probably is a little bit fortunate for me and is the best result for me right now. If we got the other injury (to my ankle or my shoulder), I might need more time to get back.”
Perhaps most disappointing about the timing of Wang’s injury, though, is how well he had been throwing before it happened. Wang has drawn rave reviews this spring for how strong he’s looked and how crisp his pitches have been.
In 2 2/3 innings on Thursday, he looked perhaps as sharp as he has since he put on a Nationals’ uniform. He was clocked in the 90-91 mph range with his fastball, even hitting 93 once, and his sinker had great movement. Girardi also mentioned how impressed he was with Wang’s curveball, a pitch the Yankees manager didn’t remember being as sharp when he was with New York.
The Nationals have a plethora of candidates who could slide into the No. 5 spot in their rotation, starting with John Lannan and Ross Detwiler, but the injury to Wang was still disheartening — mostly because everyone knows how hard the right-hander worked to make it back to the big leagues. The prospect of watching him deal with another injury is not something anyone was too excited about.
“I’m not worried about his leg as I was about his arm,” Johnson said. “The story from yesterday should be about his arm and the way he threw. I expected it and he even surpassed my expectations the way he was going at them. I didn’t expect to see that kind of stuff until the end.”