Chien-Ming Wang stood on the bullpen mound at Nationals Park on Wednesday afternoon, going through his methodical motion under the supervision of Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty.
It was the first time Wang was with the big-league team since before Opening Day and just the latest reminder that his return is nearing.
"I'm ready," Wang said through translator John Hsu. "But I need to follow directions from the team."
And that's where things get a bit complicated. Wang, who has been rehabbing a strained left hamstring suffered March 15, is allowed to remain on a rehab assignment until May 27. Manager Davey Johnson said the right-handed sinkerballer will make one more start for Triple-A Syracuse and then the Nationals will be forced to make a decision: Where do they clear room for him?
When the question has been posed to coaches, team officials and Johnson, the answer is ambiguous. It's not one they'll have a defined response to, though, until it's absolutely necessary.
"Needing to worry about where all the places are in the rotation and the bullpen is premature," Johnson said. "Hopefully nobody gets injured between now and then, and we'll be dealing from strength. But I never waste any time figuring out what I'm going to do it until the time comes."
The candidates for relief aren't all that plentiful, leading most to turn to left-hander Ross Detwiler as the likely candidate. Edwin Jackson has relieved before, but he's being paid $11 million to be a starter. Wang, whose shoulder injury history and the lengthy warm-up before each start would seem to preclude him from a relief role, said he's up for it if that's what the team needs. Johnson, though, indicated he still views Wang as a starting pitcher.
"I'm really enjoying watching them pitch," Wang said. "It's really tough for me. All of [us], we're close. As a teammate, I really don't want to see that kind of situation but I still need to follow the team, no matter what happens. Maybe they want me to be a bullpen guy. That's what I've got to do."
The team made the decision to option John Lannan and his $5 million salary to the minor leagues just before the season to ensure that Detwiler had a spot in the rotation. He has rewarded them for that move with a 2.75 ERA in seven starts. Moving him would seem counterintuitive to their reasoning for installing him in the rotation to begin with.
"It would have been tough to put Ross in the bullpen," right fielder Jayson Werth said earlier this month. "Nothing against John Lannan ... but Ross really forced their hand, I think. I think they made the right decision.
"Having him as our fifth [starter] is tough. You go into a series and, depends on how you look at it: He's your fifth, or he pitches before [Stephen] Strasburg. And I like that. I think that's good for us."
Detwiler has been mum on the topic. The decision is out of his hands, and he's taken a 'Come what may' approach. He wants to be a starter, of course, but will do what's asked of him.
Wang will start Saturday for Syracuse, the same day Detwiler will pitch for the Nationals in Washington against the Orioles. The Nationals hope it will be the final tuneup Wang needs in order to come into their rotation, the best in the majors to this point, and not weaken it. How they'll get him into it, though, even they don't know.
"Everybody else in the starting rotation is throwing the heck out of it," Johnson said. "There's no real rush to make that change."
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