CHICAGO — Throughout Chien-Ming Wang’s career in the major leagues, through his moments of triumph and his downfalls, his identity has been the same. He’s a sinkerballer. He’d live by it, and die by it. When was winning 19 games for the New York Yankees or finishing second in the American League Cy Young voting, he threw his sinker no less than 75 percent of the time.
He worked for two years in the Florida heat to regain his ability to throw it. Yet, the first two times he took a major league mound this year, he didn’t rely on it.
Tuesday night, with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field in a 3-1 Washington Nationals’ victory, Wang had his pitches sinking from warmups until his final pitch. Of his 81 pitches, he threw it 66 times. Until the sixth inning, not a single Cub could hit it. Tony Campana finally did with an infield single, but Wang’s six scoreless innings — with 12 ground-ball outs — represented a giant step forward for the right-hander.
“It’s light years,” said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty. “This is what he is. I knew he threw a lot of sinkers. I wasn’t sure how many, but we talked about it and I said, ‘Go on and throw it.’”
McCatty was so sure that Wang wasn’t being true to himself, throwing his sinker only 63 percent of the time in his first two starts, that he sought the advice of Wang’s former teammate Jason Giambi this past weekend when the Nationals were in Colorado. He didn’t ask him about the sinker, but discussed the slider, which which Wang had been turning to more often than ever before.
“I think it was a little fuzzy,” Giambi said. “But I didn’t see it too much because [Jorge Posada] kept putting one down.”
Wang heeded McCatty’s advice, taking comfort in the strength of a pitch his confidence had been wavering in. Against the Cubs, he threw it with more conviction and stayed on top of the ball more than he had in his first two starts. Nearly 100 Taiwanese fans packed into Wrigley Field and chanted his name.
“I expected the progress to be better this time,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “And it was very impressive out there. Eighty pitches for six innings? That’s vintage pitching.”
“This is exactly what I expected,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who made one of a host of fine defensive plays behind Wang. “He’s a professional. It’s not like it’s his first performance. … You can tell that he gets a little frustrated with himself at times but he never shows it to somebody who doesn’t know him. He’s always under control. He knows what his game is and I think he wants to get back to where he wants it.”
It was the first scoreless outing for Wang since June 15, 2008 and the first in which he pitched at least six innings since June 10 of that year. It was what the Nationals hoped for when they signed him for $2 million as a rehab project 19 months ago — and then when they added another year for $1 million this past December. He established his sinker and did not deviate, throwing just 12 sliders and three splitters. His fastball hovered between 90-92 mph, touching 94 once.
“It almost feels the same,” Wang said through translator John Hsu. “I just wanted to get the ball down. I didn’t think that much.”
Following two sixth-inning home runs — a monster blast by Michael Morse and a two-run shot by Jonny Gomes — Wang faced the pinch-hitting Campana to lead off the bottom half of the inning.
On the seventh pitch of the at bat, in a 2-2 count, the right-hander unleashed a 90 mph sinker inside to the left-handed hitter. The Cubs’ speedy outfielder turned on the pitch and sent it rocketing toward Morse at first base.
Morse reached out, sprawled to his right and got a glove on it, but the ball moved away. As Campana raced down the first-base line, Danny Espinosa snagged the ball just as it passed onto the outfield grass. He turned and threw toward a Wang, who was covering first base, but Campana was too fast.
Wang hung his head: a momentary disappointment, a chance at greatness lost. But it was the only one on an otherwise successful night.
“I really appreciate all the teammates in helping me tonight with good defense,” Wang said. “They played well and for me it means a lot because it’s been two years. It’s not a short time.”