Hitting Chien-Ming Wang's sinker used to be like taking a swipe at a bowling ball.
The pitch helped the right-hander twice win 19 games in the big leagues and left him with a cultlike following in his native Taiwan.
But Wang has struggled to command the sinker the way he did before a series of injuries that ended with surgery in 2009 to repair his right shoulder capsule and sideline him for two years. And the fight to command the pitch that defined his career cost Wang his spot in the Washington Nationals' starting rotation after he was torched for five runs over 3 1/3 miserable innings Tuesday.
On Thursday, Wang reclined next to his locker in the cool clubhouse after a bullpen session with pitching coach Steve McCatty in the sweltering afternoon. His sinker was the focus, particularly its angle and location. He smiled like a man who hadn't lost his rotation spot.
"No matter what my spot is with the team, I think the only thing I need to do is get my sinker back," Wang said through his interpreter. "Hopefully, I can get back to the rotation. But I just want to keep doing my job, get my sinker back."
Left-hander Ross Detwiler, who started the season as the team's fifth starter while Wang rehabbed a strained hamstring, took his rotation spot. Less than a month ago, the roles were reversed. The seesaw season between the bullpen and the rotation didn't appear to bother Detwiler, who pitched 3 2/3 innings of hitless relief after Wang's struggle Tuesday.
"I don't see how it would hurt me," Detwiler said of the shuffling.
But Wang's sinker struggles unraveled his young season. Wang has thrown 242 sinkers this season, 67 percent of his total pitches. The velocity (90.6 mph) and movement, both horizontal and vertical, are similar to last season. But 40 percent of those pitches have been balls (last season, for example, 33 percent of his sinkers were balls), as Wang walked more men than he struck out. And opponents are batting .361 with a .478 on-base percentage in his four starts, leading to a 6.62 earned-run average.
Yes, batters reach base nearly half the time when Wang starts. That isn't a number extended stays in the rotation are made of.
McCatty believed Wang's arm is lower than it should be and worked to raise his release point during the bullpen session.
"He was frustrated because he feels like he hasn't been doing this best," McCatty said. "He has a lot of pride when he pitches. He was trying so hard to throw strikes and that played into being rushed a little bit. ... So, it's both a physical problem but it's also being compounded by trying so hard."
The session's pitches, through McCatty's eyes, were less flat than recent days. More ended up in the strike zone.
"My arm kind of slid a little bit so I couldn't find the real release point on my sinker," Wang said. "That's what happened."
Whether something as simple as tweaking his release point could regain the bowling ball sinker and salvage his season remains to be seen.
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