For the better part of the past two years, the Washington Nationals have invested time, personnel and, of course, more than $3 million in pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. With each day - and month - that passed without much progress, the decision was scrutinized.
If ever they needed reassurance that their patience would be rewarded, they had it standing on the mound at Nationals Park on a crisp September afternoon Sunday. Making his 10th start for the Nationals, Wang (3-3) turned in perhaps his strongest performance yet in a 4-3 win over the Florida Marlins.
The questions that surround Wang are no longer about the health of his repaired and painstakingly rehabbed right shoulder, but rather whether he and his signature sinker will be a part of the Nationals’ rotation in 2012.
“As far as I’m concerned, ever since he’s started throwing again, he’s a keeper,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson after Wang’s 6 2/3-inning performance that featured six hits, three earned runs and five strikeouts.
“I’ve had that thinking all along,” Johnson added. “I was amazed at how he was throwing from Day One. … And I’ve seen improvement every step of the way. The main thing is that he’s starting to trust that he’s healthy. He’s throwing more quality pitches … and also in his demeanor. I think he’s getting more confidence that it’s going to hold up.”
Wang was masterful in disposing of the Marlins through the first four innings, surrendering just one hit. A flyout to center by Greg Dobbs to end the fourth was the first ball lofted into the outfield.
Gaby Sanchez changed that with a home run to lead off the fifth, and a two-run shot by Brett Hayes cut Wang’s advantage to one in the seventh. But the progress is clear as he’s getting harder for teams to attack.
In Wang’s first seven starts, he walked 13 and struck out nine. In the past three, he’s walked none and struck out 12.
“It’s turning into a pretty good success story for him,” said outfielder Jonny Gomes, who jump-started the Nationals’ offense with a double and scored on a sacrifice fly by Chris Marrero in the second.
Marrero doubled in another run, and Danny Espinosa added a two-run single in a three-run fourth.
“If he just came back and pitched, that would be pretty awesome,” Gomes said. “To come back and pitch at this level and have success? That’s icing on the cake.
“[With the Yankees], he was one of the ambassadors of that power sinker. There weren’t many guys doing it when he was doing it. His velocity is not where it was when he was in New York, but he’s become a smarter pitcher, using his other stuff. … It will be good to get him back on our team. He’s going to be at the top end of the rotation, absolutely.”
Wang’s success Sunday, similar to a six-inning performance in Chicago on Aug. 9, in which he carried a no-hitter into the sixth, was predicated on using his sinker almost 70 percent of the time. Of Wang’s 93 pitches, 64 were sinkers.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. “I think it’s a good sign for the Nationals. Maybe this guy next year is part of their rotation and can come back and pitch like he did when he was with the Yankees.”
It’s a possibility that seems more real with each start. Wang will pitch once more this season, Saturday against the Atlanta Braves, but there’s a good chance it might not be his last for Washington.
With a projected rotation that features Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan at the top, along with a young stable to fill out the rest of the staff, the Nationals could use Wang’s contributions as a veteran.
“My arm feels good,” Wang said through an interpreter. “I just want to stay healthy, have a good offseason and then get myself ready for next season. Hopefully, I can come back here, but the decision is made by the team.
“Personally, I would like to come back. I really appreciate their patience the last two years. Hopefully, in the future, I can win more games for them.”
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Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.
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