Through long rehab, Chien-Ming Wang longs to reward Nats’ patience

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HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The front door of the cramped home clubhouse at 81-year-old Municipal Stadium opens directly into the main parking lot, where fans are free to wait for their heroes after Hagerstown Suns games. On Monday night, they congregated minutes after the final out and waited for one man.

This was a pilgrimage of sorts for Ching Meng, a 40-year-old Taiwanese woman from Rockville. She and her family drove 50 miles to get here, joining at least two dozen other members of the Chien-Ming Wang D.C. Fan Club. People from cities across the region, including Ashburn, Columbia and Leesburg, organized the trip on the club’s Facebook page, hoping to finally see their fellow countryman and favorite baseball player pitch a regular-season game.

Some carried red, white and blue Taiwanese flags. Others wore white and red Washington Nationals jerseys and T-shirts with Wang’s name and No. 40 on the back. Meng proudly wore her authentic Wang jersey. She had hoped to meet him at the Nationals‘ FanFest in March but missed him.

“This,” she said, “is a makeup for us.”

The fans waiting for Wang on Monday, though, were at the back of a long figurative line. The Nationals still are anticipating his arrival after first signing him in February 2010.

The club has since paid him $3 million essentially to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right shoulder. The three innings he pitched for Hagerstown, Washington’s Single-A affiliate, on Monday were his first in a regular-season game in almost two years.

“I’m very, very happy because it’s been a long, long time,” Wang, 31, said through a translator after the game.

There’s still a lot left to accomplish, though, before the Nationals get a sufficient return on their investment.

Their recent surge in the standings brings to mind a best-case scenario. Imagine Washington contending for a playoff spot during August. Suddenly, a healthy, effective Wang joins the bullpen or starting rotation. He won 38 games with the New York Yankees from 2006-07, so he has the potential — on paper, at least — to make a positive impact.

“I need more innings, more experience,” Wang said. “As long as my arm feels good, I think I’ll have no problems.”

Doug Harris, the Nationals‘ director of player development, is a bit more cautious in his optimism. He assumed his position in late 2009 shortly before Wang signed and has closely followed his progress, or lack thereof. He remembers how Wang was projected to return to game action in May 2010, and then June and then July, but didn’t.

Harris was encouraged by Wang’s 49-pitch outing Monday but acknowledged that Wang needs repetition to establish consistency and earn the club’s confidence.

“The biggest thing that I see right now, even compared to earlier in the year, he has much more strength in his delivery and his arm is working more freely,” Harris said. “I thought he was really good in front with his arm action. That’s what’s going to allow him to have that sink and add quality to his secondary stuff.”

Wang’s velocity is a few miles per hour slower than what it used to be, but the Nationals are downplaying the importance of that. He averaged in the upper 80s Monday and topped out at 90 mph.

“He’s a sinkerball pitcher, so he doesn’t necessarily have to have the velocity of another type of pitcher,” Harris said.

“His sinker would come in the zone like a strike and just sink out of it,” Suns catcher David Freitas added. “His is a little different than some of the guys on our team.”

Wang’s exact road back to the big leagues is still unclear. The Nationals will wait until he throws on the side this week before determining where and when his next start will be.

But some in the organization are convinced Wang’s path will in fact lead to Washington.

“I wouldn’t say that the door [back to the majors] is closed by any stretch,” said Suns pitching coach Chris Michalak, who also worked with Wang in the fall. “He’s here for a reason — to some day help us out at the big-league level.”

Oh, how that would delight Meng and the others who waited more than an hour for Wang to step out into the parking lot Monday night.

Meng worked her way to the front of the pack, handed Wang a marker and turned her back so he could sign his autograph on her jersey between his name and number. She spun back around when he was finished and said, “Xiexie,” — Mandarin for “thank you.” Wang nodded and kept on signing whatever the next person put in front of him.

“I’m very excited!” Meng said moments later. “I’m going to call my parents tonight in Taiwan.”

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