Chien-Ming Wang set for debut, armed with signature sinker

Chien-Ming Wang, (left), shown with Class AA Harrisburg pitching coach Randy Tomlin, on Friday will make his first major league start since having shoulder surgery in 2009. He's made six minor league starts (below) during the past month to prepare for the occasion. (Jenny Kane/The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News)
Chien-Ming Wang, (left), shown with Class AA Harrisburg pitching coach Randy Tomlin, on Friday will make his first major league start since having shoulder surgery in 2009. He’s made six minor league starts (below) during the past month to prepare for the occasion. (Jenny Kane/The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News)

The storm had passed, so Chien-Ming Wang waited near a bog of mud and gravel that doubled as the right-field line.

Rusting bleachers held water instead of fans.

Steam rose from the line of trees beyond Pfitzner Stadium’s outfield wall, touting a free inspection from Dodson Pest Control.

Nerves fluttered through Wang, though you’d never guess from his impassive face. The right-hander used a sinker that may as well have been a bowling ball to win 55 games over five seasons with the New York Yankees. But wrapped in the uniform of the Single-A Potomac Nationals two weeks ago in Woodbridge, Va., for a game rain already canceled, Wang felt like a rookie, a baseball beginner.

A coach fished baseballs from a battered shopping cart and lobbed them to hitters in a cage used during games for the speed pitch. Each thwack of bat on dirty ball echoed through the empty place.

“In my life, I’ve been hammered by some heavy blows,” Brooks and Dunn wailed over scratchy speakers, “that never knocked me off my feet.”

Seven hundred-fifty-four days have passed since Wang’s last major league pitch, served up for a long two-run home run. Seven hundred fifty-four days of wondering if his body would fail him again, if his right shoulder would ever feel normal, if his career was in jeopardy.

“I’m learning,” Wang said through his interpreter, John Hsu, “how to trust myself again.”

After six minor league rehabilitation starts over the past month, Wang starts Friday for the Washington Nationals against the New York Mets. The worry he felt about discomfort in his shoulder is fading, like the puddles he dodged in Pfitzner Stadium’s outfield that slowly seeped away.

Running the bases in 2008, Wang sprained the middle of his foot. After the injury, he wasn’t the same. A stint on the disabled list for hip weakness followed. When he returned, Baseball Prospectus estimated his release point was 5 inches higher. That can ruin a pitcher’s statistics, arm or both. By the time Wang’s last pitch was deposited into Yankee Stadium’s right field stands by Toronto’s Adam Lind, Wang was 1-6 with a 9.64 earned-run average. Later that month, surgery repaired a torn capsule in his right shoulder.

Wang, a two-time 19-game winner, disappeared into baseball’s shadow world of rehabilitation, extended spring training and instructional league at the Nationals’ facility in Viera, Fla.

“This has been a long process,” Nationals director of player development Doug Harris wrote in an email, “but through it all he maintained a great focus on the big picture, stayed the course daily with necessary attention to detail and never fell into any of the mental peaks and valleys that can come with a prolonged rehab.”

Wang defined by sinker

Last month, Wang threw 10 or so sinkers in his first rehabilitation start with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns.

“What was that?” one Suns player asked pitching coach Chris Michalak.

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