It was one year ago, almost to the day, that Chien-Ming Wang, theoretically in the final stages of an 18-month rehabilitation from shoulder surgery, aborted his first start of spring training midway through a scheduled two-inning stint in a minor-league game – a development that portended a long, slow comeback that didn’t culminate until July, when Wang finally made his regular-season debut for the Nationals.
That day, Wang’s fastball sat in the mid-80s, with a high of 87 mph – significantly down from his pre-surgery velocity.
On Monday afternoon, Wang, the Taiwanese right-hander, climbed the mound on Field 3 at the Nationals’ minor-league complex, and showed almost immediately how far he had come in the past year. He breezed through two innings against an assortment of Nationals minor-leaguers, throwing all his pitches and topping out at 91 mph on the radar gun. Although he allowed four base hits, including a pair of well-struck doubles on breaking pitches, the results were not as important as the solid radar-gun readings and the smoothness of Wang’s delivery.
“He’s back,” said Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, who ventured over to the minor-league side to watch Wang’s start, along with pitching coach Steve McCatty, General Manager Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner. “I liked what I saw. He’s obviously stronger than last year – even in his warm-ups. He looks like the old Chien-Ming.”
The old Chien-Ming who won 19 games in 2006 and again in 2007 for the New York Yankees? That might be a stretch. But the Nationals gave Wang $4 million this season, on top of the $3 million they paid him during the two years he spent mostly rehabbing, because they thought he could be a credible fifth starter this season – at least as effective as the pitcher who went 4-3 with a 4.04 ERA in 11 starts for them at the end of 2011.
“Actually, I feel better than last year,” Wang said through a translator, “because during the offseason I worked out and tried to build up my arm strength.”
The Nationals have Wang and lefty John Lannan — Wang’s chief competition for the fifth-starter’s job — on parallel schedules, with Lannan scheduled to pitch tonight in Port St. Lucie against the New York Mets. The Nationals had been letting Wang build his arm strength slowly this spring, giving him an extra day of rest between mound sessions. But it appears the reins are now off. In five days, on March 10, both Wang and Lannan will start in split-squad games, according to Johnson, with Wang staying in Viera to face the Mets and Lannan traveling to Lakeland, Fla., to face the Tigers.
“Now,” Johnson said of Wang, “it’s just [a matter of] giving him as much work as he needs to get ready for the regular season.”