The last time Chien-Ming Wang climbed onto a Nationals mound to start a game was on June 19, the day of the now infamous pine tar incident between the Nationals and the Tampa Bay Rays. Since then, it’s been a long road for Wang from injuries and issues with mechanics through the minor leagues to return to where he stood on Sunday afternoon, on cool, sun-drenched day in September in the heart of a pennant race.
His final pitching line won’t be dazzling – two runs on eights over four innings – but Wang was much improved and looked as strong as he has this season. His sinker consistently hit 92 to 93 mph and dived low in the strike zone on hitters, inducing seven groundouts. He even notched his first career extra-base hit with a double in the third inning, rounding first base awkwardly.
“Wang looked really good,” Ian Desmond said. “That’s probably the best we’ve seen him all year. Yeah, he was good. A lot of hitters were saying he had a lot of late life on his ball. They were kind of impressed, I guess you could say.”
Wang encountered some hard luck in the fourth inning when Ryan Braun lifted a ball to center field but Bryce Harper lost it in the sun. The next two hits were singles just out of the infielders’ reaches. Logan Schafer then doubled to deep right field, just over Jayson Werth’s head. Five Brewers reached base that inning but Wang escaped with only a 2-0 deficit when he got two groundouts to end the threat. At 69 pitches, Wang could have gone deeper but Nationals Manager Davey Johnson didn’t want him to throw more after little recent work.
“He pitched well,” Johnson said. “Made good pitches in the jam. He deserved better.”
Wang was making a spot start on Sunday, needed when bad weather rained out Tuesday’s game and forced a doubleheader on Wednesday. Now, Wang will return to the bullpen and likely isn’t a candidate to make the playoff roster. He could, however, make another start if needed this season, Johnson said. While he didn’t speculate when, it seems like that could be possible if and when the Nationals clinch the National League East title and they want to rest their regular starters.
The Nationals may not have received the return they had hoped for when they brought Wang back for a one-year, $4 million deal in the offseason. But for one start on Sunday, he showed flashes of his old self and gave the Nationals a momentary bridge to their next starter.
“To look back for the season, I was down in the minor league for a long time and really appreciate for those coaching staffs down there really helping out,” Wang said through an interpreter. “And from this point, looking back again, that was kind of difficult for me to come back this year.”