A sinker, when thrown with the velocity and weight that Chien-Ming Wang can throw it, is a devastating pitch. Hitters compare it to a bowling ball, they find it impossible to lift and they pound their bats into the ground on the way back to the dugout almost as hard as the balls they roll over hit the infield.
When Wang is on, he's one of the best in the business. "Almost unhittable," as Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson calls him.
But Wang, who underwent major shoulder surgery in 2009 and spent two years working toward a comeback, has been fighting his delivery in his first two major league starts this season. His body speeds up, but his arm is slow. His arm slot goes amiss, his command wavers and his pitch becomes eminently hittable.
In a 3-1 loss to the New York Mets on Thursday, Wang faced 27 batters. Eight of them got hits, three walked. And one, right fielder Lucas Duda, sent a hanging slider into the right-center field seats. The Nationals couldn't recover.
"He's having a little problem," Johnson said. "He sometimes gets out of that slot that he needs to be in."
Wang knows the feeling when things are right and when they're wrong. Last year, after he returned to the major leagues in late July, he said he'd deal with the issue "a little bit once every game," and acknowledged the need for an adjustment. In his first start of the season, he cited it for his command issues and an uncharacteristically high number of pitches in just four innings.
But in the middle of a game it's difficult to fix. When he's right, and his arm stays with his body, "his stuff is outstanding," Johnson said. When it's off, and "he gets to the side, the ball is just flat and it runs." In 5 1/3 innings Thursday afternoon, Wang was rarely "right."
"My body moves too fast," Wang said. "So my arm was kind of low and my wrist was open."
"He's knows what he's working on," Johnson said. "But the adrenaline's going. He had that problem in Miami where the ball was flat and would run off the plate. When he's right, when he's in mid-80 pitches, he's in the seventh inning. When he's having trouble finding it, he's going to have a higher pitch count, like he did today [84 in 5[1/3]]."
It didn't help, though, that while Wang was scuffling the Nationals were overwhelmed by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Through six innings, the Nationals had tallied two hits, and only two balls were propelled far enough to escape the infield. By the time Dickey's day was over, he'd scattered four hits over 7 1/3 innings and struck out eight.
"It's just different facing him because he throws it so hard," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who clubbed his third homer of the season once Dickey had left the game. "He can cut it, he can sink it. I don't know if he is doing it on purpose, but it sure seems like he is.
If not for Zimmerman's home run to center leading off the ninth, the Nationals' second shutout of the season would have been penciled into the books. Washington brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh and eighth innings but couldn't capitalize.
The Nationals' 23rd loss of the season raised even more questions about their fifth starter.
"Usually he pounds the zone so much," Zimmerman said of Wang. "He just pounds it with those sinkers and forces you to swing early in the count and now you're behind. He's still, I think, kind of working back. I know his velocity's been there. He looks pretty good for what we see. I think he'll just get better with each start."
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