In the first inning Tuesday night, as he watched the Reds knock around Chien-Ming Wang’s sinker, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty turned to Manager Davey Johnson and said something that would have seemed unfathomable during the past two years.
“He’s too strong,” McCatty kept saying. “He’s too strong.”
Wang’s sinker, the pitch that allowed him to carry a no-hitter into the sixth inning last week in Chicago, was staying up, consistently a few inches higher than where Wilson Ramos stuck his mitt. Wang received six days off because of an off day and a rainout. Now, to McCatty’s eyes, Wang was too strong after spending the last two years recovering from a torn shoulder capsule and surgery.
Wang settled down, earned the win and pitched 6 1/3 innings, his longest start since June 10, 2008. To do it, though, he needed help and good luck. The Reds smashed five line drives to the outfield from the second inning through the fifth, and they all found the glove of an outfielder.
Wang, for his part, said he felt “the same,” not too strong. But he agreed that he did not have his typical sinker. Consistency, after more than two years away from the majors, will not come back to Wang easily.
The most unnerving thing about Wang, perhaps, has been his dearth of strikeouts. Wang, by inducing groundballs with his sinker, never needed to strike out many batters. From 2005 to 2008, he struck out four batters per nine innings; this year, that would rank him ahead of two out of 107 qualifying pitchers.
So Wang does not have to be a strikeout pitcher to succeed. But in his first four starts, he has struck out only three batters in 21 1/3 innings. He struck out no one last night. Entering last night, batters had swung and missed at 8.6 percent of his pitches, a little more than half his career average. Last night, the Reds swung and missed only twice, both by Drew Stubbs, on consecutive pitches.
Wang has countered his inability to strike out any hitters by not walking them. He’s issued just five walks. The question of whether a groundball pitcher can succeed with the ball constantly in play, so long as he walks no one, is interesting both in practice and in theory. Wang pitched decently last night, but he also needed a reasonable amount of luck. What would his start have looked like if some of those line drives had fallen in? Can his sinker produce weak groundballs consistently enough for him to have sustained success?
The answers to those questions will start to come over the next six weeks, as the Nationals continue to evaluate whether or not they should keep Wang in the fold for next season. The important thing, for now, is simply that he’s healthy enough to provide an honest assessment. For one night, he may have even been too strong.
One more thing from last night that warrants mentioning: The Nationals received another overpowering performance from Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, who recorded all eight outs after Wang departed. Clippard stranded a pair of runners by striking out Brandon Phillips in the seventh, and Storen struck out two in the ninth, firing 97-mph sinkers that dove from off the left side of the plate to just over the corner to save his 32nd game.
It would be easy to take those two for granted, and it would also be wrong.
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NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 13, Gwinett 4: Stephen Lombardozzi went 3 for 5 with a double and a walk. Roger Bernadina went 1 for 3 with a home run and a walk. Chris Marrero went 2 for 4 with a double and a walk.
Akron 4, Harrisburg 3 (12 innings): Bryce Harper went 1 for 5 with a strikeout. Derek Norris went 1 for 6 with a home run. Rafael Martin blew a save.
Potomac 6, Kinston 3: Eury Perez went 2 for 5 with a triple. Josh Smoker allowed no runs in two relief innings on one hit and one walk, striking out four.
Hagerstown 10, Lexington 2: Robbie Ray allowed no runs in three innings on one hit and one walk, striking out four. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 3 with a home run, a triple and a walk. David Freitas went 2 for 4 with a double.
Auburn was off.