Chien-Ming Wang was sent to the Nationals bullpen from the starting rotation to work on a quirk in his mechanics that was preventing him throwing his trademark sinker. But in his last two appearances from the bullpen, he hasn’t been effective. He has allowed six runs in three innings.
On Saturday, he entered the game for starter Stephen Strasburg, who was pulled after three innings because of dehydration. A one-run deficit quickly turned into a four-run deficit. Wang allowed four runs on five hits and his ERA ballooned to 7.61. Braves hitters knocked him around.
“He’s just not right,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “His release is not right and I’m concerned about it. He’s a veteran pitcher and it’s not really spring training. We’re in the heat of battle.”
It was a tough spot to enter the game, the fourth inning of a brutally hot game. And, Wang, who is slower to warm up, was given the call to come in only after Strasburg was pulled following his fourth-inning at-bat.
Wang has worked with pitching Steve McCatty on his delivery. The 32-year old right-hander was rushing it, which is causing his arm to drag behind his body and prevents him from getting his hand on top of the ball. As a result, his fastball lacks the sink that made him an effective pitcher.
“I think my arm felt pretty good,” Wang said through an interpreter following Saturday’s 7-5 loss to the Braves. “My arm slot, I think I got back a little bit. It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t get the ball located well today.”
If Wang continues to struggle, it creates a dilemma for the Nationals. They are handicapped in how they can use Wang, which hurts his value as a reliever. As a starter this season, he made four starts, lasted no more than 5 1/3 innings and allowed at least two runs in each one.
Since he is essentially a starter stashed in the bullpen, the Nationals have kept him on a five-day schedule. They are also especially cautious with him because he suffered a severe right shoulder injury, that could have been career-ending, which kept him out of the majors for nearly two years.
The Nationals saw enough in Wang’s 11 starts last summer to bring him back on a one-year, $4 million deal for this season. They have waited for his recovery, believing he could regain the form that made him a two-time 19-game winner with the New York Yankees.
The Nationals have been patient with Wang, and Johnson has been a strong supporter, but with the team in contention, that good grace may be wearing. Reliever Henry Rodriguez, who has been on the disabled list since June 7 and has made six minor league rehab appearances, is close to being to return — a decision the Nationals have delayed.
Asked on Saturday if he felt like he was in tough position to work on his delivery from the bullpen, Wang said: “Coach gave me this opportunity. I just need to do my best to get myself back just like before.”