Maybe it’s a cruel fact for Chien-Ming Wang that he has the misfortune of struggling in one of the best rotations in the major leagues. Maybe it’s by contrast that Wang, the most veteran of the staff and its second-highest-paid member, has his issues magnified because of the four who come before him.
Or maybe it’s because on the nights that he struggles he’s almost always relieved by Ross Detwiler, the left-hander who was bumped from the rotation when the sinkerballer was ready to come off the disabled list in late May. And Detwiler, thus far, has made that contrast even more stark.
But in the Nationals‘ 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Nationals Park on Tuesday night, a defeat that featured the eighth-inning ejection of former Nationals reliever Joel Peralta for having pine tar on his glove, it was Wang’s poor performance they couldn’t overcome.
The Nationals became just the third team this season to score more than three runs off former No. 1 overall selection David Price, but because of the hole Wang and his work-in-progress delivery dug them, that wasn’t enough. After 3 ⅓ innings, Wang threw 77 pitches, allowed five earned runs off seven hits and three walks and struck out one. And it was Detwiler’s sterling relief work, 3 ⅔ hitless innings, that glared ever more.
“It’s just not him,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson after Wang’s fourth start, one that seemed to bring them only slightly closer to a resolution on why he’s rushing his delivery and leaving his arm lagging behind his body.
With the Nationals‘ lead in the National League East trimmed to three games after their fourth straight loss and their starting pitching candidates plentiful, beginning with Detwiler, Wang’s performances have them in a bind. The right-hander said only that he is not worried about his rotation spot. “It’s kind of frustrating for me right now,” he added, noting that he’s able to execute his delivery flawlessly during bullpen sessions but not replicate it in the game.
“I feel OK in the bullpen,” Wang said through translator John Hsu. “But I just don’t feel that well when I go out there.”
The potential for Wang, who has a 6.62 ERA since moving into the rotation, is what is most tantalizing. The Nationals watched him work tirelessly to make his comeback after major shoulder surgery and they witnessed a pitcher better, perhaps, even than his prime during spring training. But that is not the one who’s been starting meaningful games for them the last month.
“I know how good he can be,” Johnson said, admitting he will discuss his options with pitching coach Steve McCatty as well as Wang before they move forward. “My job is to try to get everybody doing the things they’re capable of doing. That’s my job.
“If I thought he could get better out of the bullpen or starting, that would come into the decision. I’m not going to make a decision right after a rough outing. Detwiler was obviously superb.”
Michael Morse’s first home run of the season, hit with Ryan Zimmerman on first after a single in the sixth, brought them within a run. Ian Desmond clubbed his career-best 11th home run of the season in the second to give his team a short-lived lead. And their bullpen, Detwiler included, turned in 5 ⅔ shutout innings.
They ignited a little intrigue in the eighth when Johnson asked home plate umpire Tim Tschida to check Peralta’s glove for pine tar, a violation Peralta was ejected for and had his glove confiscated. The Rays countered by checking Ryan Mattheus, who was clean.
But when it was over, when the Nationals had dropped to 11 games over .500 after being 15 up just a week ago, their biggest issue was not pine tar or wars of words. It was Wang and how they can get him to be the pitcher they hope that he still is.
“I think there’s a lot there,” Johnson said. “We need to figure it out. It’s getting late.”