ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals used Chien-Ming Wang in relief for the first time Friday, summoning him with one out in the fifth when manager Davey Johnson felt it was time to pull the plug on Ross Detwiler’s night.
One day later, the Nationals did the same to Detwiler’s spot in the rotation.
Wang will start Wednesday, taking over the role of the No. 5 starter for the team with the best starting rotation in the major leagues. Detwiler, in turn, will move to the bullpen and assume the responsibilities of a long reliever.
“It’s a tough decision, but I think it’s best for the whole ballclub,” Johnson said after the Nationals’ 8-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.
The reasons for the move are plentiful, though none likely too pleasing to Detwiler. Asked how the left-hander took the news, Johnson said, “About like he took it when I took him out of the game [Friday] with two outs to go in the fifth. I want him to take it that way.”
But Wang, who underwent surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule in 2009 and worked for two years to finally make his major league comeback in 2011, is truly not suited for bullpen work. Wang on Friday began warming in the third inning and wasn’t used in the game until the fifth. While Detwiler gives the Nationals a less-than-ideal situation with two left-handed long relievers, along with Tom Gorzelanny, his ability to warm quicker and be more serviceable out of the bullpen is key.
Neither Wang nor Detwiler were available for comment after the announcement.
“[Detwiler] is invaluable because I rank him up with [Stephen Strasburg] and [Gio Gonzalez] and [Jordan Zimmermann] and I’m definitely going to take care of him out in the bullpen,” Johnson said. “But it would be very hard for me to handle a 19-game winner who’s made a great comeback from arm surgery in the bullpen.”
From the outset of spring training, the Nationals had planned on Wang assuming the last spot in the rotation and Detwiler serving in a bullpen role like this one. Team officials and teammates raved about Wang’s performance in spring training and how much stronger he looked than even the end of the 2011 season.
Then Wang strained his left hamstring in mid-March and Detwiler’s strong spring convinced the Nationals his talents would be wasted in the bullpen. They optioned John Lannan to the minors on the eve of the 2012 season in order to ensure Detwiler a starting opportunity.
But in his last three starts, Detwiler (3-3, 3.88 ERA) has labored more than he did at the season’s start. He’s allowed 13 earned runs in 14 ⅓ innings and walked six. In the six starts before that, he’d walked nine total batters and allowed eight runs. He needed 100 pitches to get through just 4 ⅓ innings Friday.
While the Nationals have won two of his last three starts, they knew the impending return of Wang to the active roster would force them to make a decision at some point.
“This is my decision,” Johnson said. “I try to do what’s best for each and every player. Det’s no different. I want to do what’s best for him — and it probably would be best for him to stay in the rotation, for his development, because there’s still a lot higher ceiling there for him.
“But by the same token, there’s 25 guys on this club and the best situation for the bullpen … is where I need somebody that can truly give me innings if a starter can’t post. Detwiler can do that as good as anybody in baseball.”
The Nationals have known since the offseason that they had a surplus of starting pitchers, but the team still feels it will need them all at some point during the season. With Strasburg on an innings limit, the Nationals will almost certainly use Detwiler in the rotation again, and there’s always the chance someone in the rotation gets hurt as well.
Wang signed a $4 million, incentive-laden deal this offseason to be a starter, and the Nationals had a hard time justifying using him any other way.
“Here’s a guy that’s been in pennant fights, too,” Johnson said. “He knows what the pressure’s all about. It’s a good opportunity for him and for us to have him be in the role he’s accustomed to, and that’s starting.
“Doesn’t lessen the fact that I think Detwiler’s one heck of a pitcher and has pitched exceptionally well, even to date. That’s it.”