"I think that was an okay first outing." Davey Johnson, on Chien-Ming Wang's return to the Majors.
|Chien-Ming Wang as he prepared for his first MLB start in two years. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)|
You can't blame Washington Nationals fans if they are a little myopic looking at last night's 8-5 loss to the New York Mets and only seeing the team's sixth straight defeat and eighth out of nine, pushing their record even further back from the elusive .500 mark to 49-56. For a long-suffering fan base, each loss is a reminder of how far this team still needs to go to be taken seriously as a contender.
But for an even larger fan base, this game was bigger than the World Series. And though the Michael Jordan of Taiwan didn't excel right out of the starting gate, he did return to the Major Leagues after a grueling and arduous two year absence. He got Major League hitters out, felt good afterward, and returned some national pride back to a country that has only been able to boast six big league players in their history, and certainly none as celebrated as tonight's returning hero, Chien-Ming Wang.
Wang, now 31, made a less-than-triumphant return to a big league mound last night after two years of rehab due to surgery on a torn shoulder capsule, an injury much more common in football offensive linemen. His delivery from the wind-up, lifting his arms high over his head and arching his upper back and shoulders, was familiar from his hey-day with the New York Yankees in the mid-aughties, when for two and a half years he was one of the better pitchers in the game.
His bread-and-butter, a power sinker, didn't quite have as much power -- or as much sink -- last night as it did in 2006 through mid-2008, when he coaxed ground balls at more than twice the average rate of Major League pitchers. But Wang did register half of his outs on ground balls in the four innings he pitched, and several of the base hits against were of the "seeing-eye" grounder variety.
The game started out roughly for Wang, obviously nervous or over-hyped on adrenaline taking a big league mound for the first time in what probably seemed like an eternity to him, and the legions of Taiwanese fans and media assembled at Nats Park. He issued four straight balls to Mets leadoff hitter Jose Reyes, none really close to being a strike.
The next four batters all reached on singles and after a groundout and double play on a sacrifice fly, the Mets had a 4-0 lead after a half inning. It was a rather inauspicious debut to say the least. Wang settled down after that though and retired the Mets in order in the second and gave up a lone single in the third. But in the fourth, a couple of hard hit balls and errors by Danny Espinosa and Jayson Werth produced two more runs for the visitors. Wang got out of the inning, but his night was over.
In sum, Wang threw 60 pitches, 39 for strikes, in four innings. He gave up six runs -- four earned -- on eight hits and one walk, striking out two. He hit as high as 93 on the radar with his fastball, but his speed varied from pitch-to-pitch between 88-91 most of the time. After the game, both the pitcher and his manager were pleased with the effort, acknowledging that he still had some work to do but the most important thing was that he was, after all that time, back.
"I was actually impressed," Davey Johnson said in his post game press conference. "I thought he threw the ball pertly and that first inning he got the ball up. They've got some good hitters in their lineup that didn't try to do too much with it, hitting little soft line drives. Second inning he got the ball down more. I don't think his arm is fully strong, some of his breaking balls were not breaking too good. But I liked the way he threw. If he didn't have the rough first inning where he threw a lot of pitches I'd have probably gone another inning with him."
Through his interpreter, Wang indicated he was "happy" with his performance. He said that he was "excited" in the first inning, maybe a little too anxious but that he felt fine. He indicated that he was "close" to being 100 percent, and that he's got work to do to be competitive.
Asked how happy he was to return to the Majors after the two-year layoff, Wang said "I can do it again... Right now I'm back."
Wang is indeed back. Johnson did not hesitate when asked if Wang would start again in five days, cutting off the reporter who asked the question answering in the affirmative. Wang does have some work to do, but we saw flashes of it last night in the second and third innings, when he was able to generate ground ball outs and have a little success.
As for the rest of the game, the Nats were forced to play catch-up, and they didn't fare so well. They pushed five runs across after trailing 6-0, but left the bases loaded twice. In the sixth, Wilson Ramos popped out after two walks and a single loaded them up, and in the eighth, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman both struck out to end the frame stranding three runners each.
The Nationals are reeling right now, and even the return of a national hero wasn't enough to spur them to victory. With the trade deadline looming ever larger -- Sunday at 4:00 pm -- there are distractions aplenty, and I'm sure Davey Johnson and the team just want to get back to playing baseball. They'll have to be patient in that regard and deal with whatever changes may come. All they can control is how they play between the lines, and for the last two week, that hasn't been very good.
THE GOOD: Laynce Nix went 2-for-5 with an RBI. Wilson Ramos went 2-for-3 with a walk and an RBI. Ryan Mattheus threw two shutout innings, giving up just one hit.
THE BAD: Jayson Werth went 1-for-4 with a walk but struck out three times.
THE UGLY: Danny Espinosa went 0-for-5 with two Ks, stranding four. He also had an error that led to the two-run fourth inning that ended Wang's night.
THE STATS: Nine hits, four walks, nine strikeouts. 4-for-11 with RISP, 10 LOB, zero GIDP. E: Espinosa (8).
NEXT GAME: Saturday at 7:05 pm against the Mets. Jason Marquis (8-5, 3.95) is scheduled, against R.A. Dickey (5-8, 3.74)
NATS NOTES: Before the game, OF Roger Bernadina was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse to make room on the roster for Wang. Bernadina had an option remaining and the team felt this was the most logical move, citing a need to keep an extra pitcher due to the bullpen being overworked lately.
Tom Gorzelanny relieved Wang last night and pitched two innings, giving up two earned runs on three hits, striking out one.
|All photos C.Nichols/Nats News Network|