At first blush, the outlook looks pretty grim. In two starts, Chien-Ming Wang -- the Taiwanese Michael Jordan -- has put up some pretty ugly numbers. After yesterday's 6-4 to the Atlanta Braves, snapping a four-game winning streak for the Washington Nationals, Wang has allowed 12 runs -- six earned -- in nine innings pitched. That works out to a 6.00 ERA that's being gracious as to how well he's really pitched due to the errors that have allowed half the runs he's given up to go unearned.
Wang has allowed 15 hits and two walks in that time frame, for an unsightly 1.889 WHIP. And the kicker: he's struck out just two hitters. These sound like the numbers a Single-A non-prospect would put up if he were suddenly injected into a Major League rotation.
But this isn't a Single-A non-prospect we're talking about. This is a guy that had back-to-back 19-win seasons and was on his way to a third when a base-running incident of all things derailed what was once a very promising career. He has finished second in a Cy Young vote and started Game One of a playoff series when he was with the New York Yankees. This is a guy that you look for the silver lining with.
The silver lining is there if you want to look for it. And the Nats will. They've been very patient with Wang over the last two years, essentially paying $3 million over the last two seasons for his rehab from major shoulder capsule surgery.
Both his starts have followed the same pattern: Get roughed up in the first, dominate in the middle, get roughed up in his last inning.
In his first start, Wang walked the first batter on four pitches, none of which were within six inches of the plate. It's safe to say he was nervous. But he then allowed the next four batters to reach as well, and before half the crowd was in their seats he'd given up four runs on 24 pitches in the frame. He then only needed 24 pitches combined to get through the next two innings, inducing ground balls to retire six out of seven batters faced. Then in the fourth inning, more trouble. He got a couple pitches up, there was an infield error on a potential double play ground ball, and two more runs scored.
Yesterday was very similar. The first inning resulted in two runs. A ground ball that just eluded a fielder went as a single. Then a stolen base and two ground outs scored the first run. Another ground ball single and walk set up the second. Then for three innings Wang was solid, allowing just one hit that was erased by a double play ball.
In the fifth, his throwing error on a comebacker opened the flood gates. Maybe he got tired, maybe he was rattled by the error. But Wang did get two outs without a run scoring until he left pitches up and over the plate to Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla, the last a hanging breaking ball that went for a home run that manager Davey Johnson called "a poor choice" and Wang's third best pitch.
"I mean, he had a good sinker," Johnson said. "He was getting a lot of groundballs. You show [the slider], but you make it bounce. You don't leave that waffle ball right out over the plate. In that situation, if you're going to get beat, go strength to strength. That's part of, I guess, coming back after a long layoff."
But Johnson noted the progress from the first start to the next. "Everything was a lot crisper." Johnson said. "He looked stronger. I thought his ball was moving more. I was pleased. The error kind of opened the door for them a little bit and then he made a couple of bad pitches."
"It was a step in the right direction."
So he's having periods where he's showing the pitcher he once was. He's always given up a lot of base hits, it's what sinker ball pitchers do. Jason Marquis and John Lannan are the same way. Sometimes the ground balls are hit at someone, sometimes they get through. But it's hard to hit line drives and fly ball against sinkerballers, so those hits that get through are usually singles and teams are forced to string several together to score. It's a tough way to have to go about things.
But you also have to have impeccible defense behind pitchers like that -- especially in your infield, and in both of Wang's starts, errors started the unraveling.
Wang is throwing strikes, having walked just two in two starts. He's got decent velocity, sitting 89-91 with his fastball and touching 93-MPH. His arm strength will continue to build as he adjusts to throwing to Major League hitters again. He needs to settle himself better in the first inning. Maybe the extra adrenaline of being back on a Major League mound after so much time away is just overcoming him in the first inning, working against him to keep the sinker from falling until he tires a bit from throwing 25-30 pitches.
But the Nationals owe it to themselves -- and to Wang -- to see if he can be an option for the Major League staff next season. They can't find that out with him pitching to minor league players. They need for him to pitch against Major League hitting. They need to allow him the time to see if he can be a big league pitcher again. It might be unpalatable to some fans who feel the Nats are simply giving up every fifth day while they trot Wang out in what is essentially Major League rehab, and that viewpoint could be understandable.
But the competitive portion of this season is over. The Nationals traded two veteran players off the big league roster for minor league talent. They will be shutting down Jordan Zimmermann after a few more starts. They'll be recalling a couple of young pitchers (and perhaps a position player or two) in the near future to give them a taste of the majors. And of course, all of NatsTown awaits The Second Coming.
With the investment both the team and the player has made in this, the Nats simply have to give Wang time to succeed.