Tonight marks the culmination of a two-year journey for Chien-Ming Wang. Whether it's the beginning of another chapter -- or just prolonging the end of his career -- is the big question that starts to get answered with his first appearance since 2009 tonight against the New York Mets.
You know his history. He's a two-time 19 game winner for the New York Yankees. He's been an Opening Day starter and started the first game of the ALDS in 2006. He's the Michael Jordan of Taiwan.
Chien-Ming Wang is all of these things. But he's been shelved so long due to injuries -- first to a torn Lisfranc ligament in his right foot suffered running the bases during an interleague game in 2008, then to a catastrophic shoulder injury caused by an adjustment to his mechanics dealing with the foot discomfort -- that no one; not the Nats, the legion of Taiwanese media that follow his every move, or Wang himself has any idea what he is now.
Before the injuries, Wang boasted a devastating 93-MPH sinker that generated ground ball out after ground ball out, with Major League hitters continually baffled by a ball that started in the strike zone but darted towards the dirt as it approached home plate, dipping as much as ten inches, leaving them to pound the ball into the turf time and again.
But that was all before the injuries, surgery and extensive -- and lengthy -- rehab. His injury was compared to the one New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees suffered. The Nationals signed Wang prior to the 2010 season on a $2 million deal with hopes that he'd pitch for them late in the season. That didn't happen, as the rehab process was slower than anyone anticipated. The Nats non-tendered Wang after the season, but re-signed him in December last year to a one-year, $1 million deal (plus incentives) and he continued his rehab, appearing in the Nats' instructional league, where reports had his fastball in the low-to-mid eighties.
In late June, the Nats finally decided it was time to send Wang out for a rehab assignment, and he performed admirably in six appearances, all starts, across all levels of the Nats farm system. He went 2-1 with a 3.14 ERA and 1.116 WHIP in 28 2/3 innings pitched. He struck out 17 (5.3 per nine innings) while walking just four (1.3 per nine). His fastball generally sat in high eighties to 90-MPH, and touched 91-92 on occasion.
The Nationals don't know what they are going to get out of Wang the rest of the way. If he bears any resemblance to the Wang of 2006-07, when he was arguably one of the better pitchers in the game, the Nats will have been rewarded for their patience and could potentially have found a veteran starter to add to their future rotation plans. If upon his return he just can't get Major League hitters out anymore, all it cost the team was a bunch of money.
We'll start to find out tonight either way.