In December, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson watched Chien-Ming Wang pitch and held scant optimism he would pitch this season. Wang used his right arm awkwardly, like a catapult, and pitches left his hand with little power. Wang had been trying for more than a year to return from a torn capsule in his right shoulder and the major surgery it required. Johnson thought he may never make it back.
After Wang’s 2011 season concluded Saturday, Johnson had changed his mind. Wang has made a successful, unprecedented return from his injury. Johnson has already decided, without any doubt, that he wants the Nationals to sign Wang to a contract extension and bring him back for next year‘s starting rotation.
“Shoot,” Johnson said, “If I’m here, he can have my salary.”
Saturday, Wang allowed one run on four hits and no walks in six innings, finishing his season with one of his strongest starts. He struck out four and made only one mistake, a 3-2 sinker in the fifth inning that Freddie Freeman drilled for a solo home run. For the year, he finished with a 4.04 ERA, 25 strikeout and 13 walks in 62 1/3 innings over 11 starts.
“It was a remarkable season,” Johnson said. “He got better every time out. What a great comeback. The best is yet to come.”
Wang improved both the strength of his shoulder and the quality of his pitching until the injury had almost become an afterthought. Between starts, Wang bench-pressed like he once did before his shoulder injury. In his last four starts, Wang struck out 16 and walked none in 23 2/3 innings, a span of 93 batters faced.
“I wish I still could pitch a couple more games this season,” Wang said. “Every outing I get, I feel my shoulder stronger and my breaking ball is coming back. I’m looking forward to next season.”
Wang improved as he gained more confidence in his sinker, which went hand in hand with the confidence he had in the structural integrity of his right shoulder. As Wang felt more comfortable with his shoulder, he could put more sink on his fastball.
Catcher Ivan Rodriguez said: “I’ll tell you this: Every start that he’s throwing, he’s going to be better and better and better. He’s going to be a guy that is going to do a good job in this organization.
“I faced him when he was in his prime. He was throwing 97-mile-an-hour sinkers. I think that is going to come as time goes by. But what he’s doing so far is pretty impressive. He’s throws harder with the Yankees, but you don’t need to throw hard.”
Wang also contributed Saturday in a surprising way – at the plate. In the fourth inning, the Braves intentionally walked Rodriguez to face Wang with men on second and first. It seemed a sound decision given Wang’s 0-for-32 history at the plate. But he made it 1 for 33 by slicing a grounder down the first base line, an RBI single. His teammates called for the ball, and Wang planned to display it in his living room.
In line with his incentive-laded contract, Wang made another $100,000 for his start, and he will make another $500,000 simply for remaining on the roster after Tuesday. The Nationals also paid him a $1 million base salary this season, following the $2 million they paid him in 2010 for not throwing a single pitch.
For the Nationals, Wang may really be worth the investment. He feels appreciative for and comfortable with the franchise. His success down the stretch will earn Wang another contract, but how far he came meant more than money to him.
“I’m really happy I can still pitch,” Wang said.