Contention, the Nationals are learning, can create difficult choices. In another season, they could choose patience for an accomplished, floundering starting pitcher. In first place, every result means too much to send a project to the mound and hope every fifth day.
The Nationals face such a choice now. Do they stick with Chien-Ming Wang, the two-time 19-game winner they signed to a one-year, $4 million deal? Or do they find a way – which will not be easy – to remove him from the rotation and slot Ross Detwiler back into the fifth starter role? Last night, while not making any definitive statements, Johnson indicated he would stick by Wang.
“I know how good he can be,” Johnson said. “My job is to get everybody doing the things they’re capable of doing. That’s my job. If I thought he could get it better out of the bullpen, that would come into the decision. I’m not going to make a decision right after a rough outing.”
The Nationals’ rotation has quite obviously been the key to their rise to first place in the NL East, holding a three-game lead over the Mets despite a four-game losing streak. But that fifth starter role is becoming a sore spot.
After Wang allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings last night in a 5-4 loss to the Rays, yielding seven hits and three walks, the Nationals had to start thinking about a switch. His ERA in four starts rose to 6.75.
Ross Detwiler, meantime, has allowed two earned runs in 13 1/3 innings – a 1.35 ERA – since his relegation to the bullpen. Last night, he retired 11 of 12 batters he faced, yielding his only base runner when he hit Carlos Pena with a pitch.
Wang’s problem remains mechanical. He is “rushing” through his delivery, Johnson said, which causes his arm to drag behind his body in his delivery. The rushing prevents Wang from staying behind and on top of the ball, which causes the ball to come out of his hand on the side. Rather than producing his trademark sink, the ball has moved horizontally and wildly.
“Overall, my arm still feels good,” Wang said. “I just couldn’t locate the ball very well today. I still need to use my body and try to get my feeling back. Every time we had a bullpen, pitching coach [Steve] McCatty was telling me I need to stay back, on top of the ball. I think I did okay during the bullpen. I just didn’t feel that well when I go out there.”
The Nationals possess several choices for what to do with Wang, none of them appealing. He cannot be counted on to pitch out of the bullpen because of the state of his surgically repaired right shoulder. He has no minor league options.
The Nationals could designate Wang for assignment, which would mean giving up on him after four starts. They could trade him, but that would require the highly unlikely inclusion of a willing partner. They could keep him in the rotation, which would mean rolling the dice on a pitcher who this year has allowed 40 base runners — 14 walks, 26 hits — in 17 2/3 innings as a starter
“Everything is there,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It’s just a step he’s got to take. He didn’t have much of a spring training at all. He had a great spring training [before it was shortened by a hamstring injury]. You see it all around the league – it takes pitchers time to get all their pitches. There’s guys now, I’m watching TV, and they’re saying, ‘This guy just got his slider.’ These guys have had all year to do it.
Obviously, expectations are a little high because of what happened with him getting moved into the rotation and Ross getting moved out. I look forward to seeing what Chien-Ming can do. I know what Chien-Ming can do. I just want to see him do it for himself.”
Detwiler has responded to his move to the bullpen exactly as the Nationals hoped. In a tough position, Detwiler was disappointed but he never complained. He only focused on how to adapt to pitching out of the bullpen.
Last night, he said, he got help from veteran left-hander Michael Gonzalez, who gave Detwiler advice on how to work into tempo and attack specific hitters.
“I don’t think about my future,” Detwiler said. “The future is out of my hands. I just try to go out there and do my best every time. Whatever happens is going to happen. If I start thinking about the future, then I’m not thinking about the next pitch.”
Will Detwiler’s next pitch come as a reliever or the Nationals’ fifth starter? For now, Johnson indicated he will continue to choose Wang. But the stakes are high for the Nationals now, too high for the Nationals to wait too long for Wang to become what he is capable of.
“I think there’s a lot there,” Johnson said. “It’s my job and McCatty’s job to make sure he gets comfortable. We need to figure it out. It’s getting late. And we will.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 4, Pawtucket 3: On rehab, Henry Rodriguez allowed no runs in one inning on no hits and no walks, striking out one. Corey Brown went 3 for with a double. Erik Komatsu went 2 for 4. Chris Marrero, on rehab, went 1 for 4.
Portland 14, Harrisburg 0: Jeff Kobernus went 1 for 3 with a walk. Daniel Rosenbaum allowed seven runs in three innings on nine hits and four walks, striking out three.
Potomac is on its all-star break.
Hagerstown is on its all-star break.
Auburn 8, Batavia 7: Brandon Miller went 1 for 3 with a home run and two walks. Angelberth Montilla went 2 for 4 with a double. Stephen Perez went 2 for 4 with a double.