CHICAGO — When Chien-Ming Wang returned to a major league pitching mound, his right shoulder diminished even after two years of sweat and toil, he no longer trusted what had made him one of the best in the world. He lost conviction in his unrelenting style, in throwing the pitch — and only that pitch — that thudded off bats like medicine balls. His battered shoulder changed him, and he responded with more change.
Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, Wang ditched his attempt at reinvention and crafted perhaps the most promising game of this Washington Nationals season. In a 3-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs, Wang carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, allowing only an infield single in his six scoreless innings. In his third start since returning from a torn capsule in his right shoulder and the massive surgery it required, Wang earned his first major league win since June 28, 2009.
“For me, it means a lot, because it’s been two years,” Wang said through an interpreter. “It’s not a short time.”
Wang’s performance hinged on him finding what made him so dominant in his best seasons. He largely abandoned, to great effect, any pitch other than his sinker, the pitch he threw insistently at his peak, the weapon made him one of the best pitchers in baseball. Wang threw 66 of out of 81 pitches. The results were familiar — he recorded 11 groundball outs, Cubs batters drilling sinkers into the dirt in front of home plate.
“I was right when I told you I expected him to be better,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I even watched him warming up, his ball really had some good sink. That’s him.”
Pitching coach Steve McCatty implored Wang this week to throw more sinkers. The sinker had lost velocity and bite through his shoulder operation and recovery, and Wang pitched as though he believed one pitch could no longer sustain him. He sprinkled in more sliders and change-ups. But what remained of Wang’s sinker, McCatty insisted, was still a pitch capable of making major league hitters hit groundballs.
In Colorado this weekend, McCatty chatted with Rockies first baseman Jason Giambi, a teammate of Wang’s during his best years with the New York Yankees, and brought up Wang’s slider. “Was it good,” McCatty asked, “or was it a little fuzzy?”
“A little fuzzy,” Giambi replied. “But I didn’t see it too much.” Because Wang threw so many sinkers.
Tuesday night, Wang threw almost all his sinkers between 89 and 92 mph, occasionally touching 93 on the radar gun. In 2006, the season he finished second in Cy Young voting, Wang often threw mid-90s sinkers, but he averaged 93 mph with the pitch. Between starts, Wang worked on throwing a better sinker, focusing on his release point and staying on top of the ball as he released it.
“It almost feels the same,” Wang said. “The sinkerball was sinking.”
After five innings, as the groundballs piled up, Wang still had not allowed a hit. Ian Desmond saved a potential single in the fifth, when Tyler Colvin shot a groundball through Wang’s legs and Desmond made one of several dazzling plays, a slick stop behind second base on a wicked hop.
The Nationals, though, still had not scored a run off Cubs starter Matt Garza, a problem fixed with a sudden, powerful spasm of offense. With one out, Michael Morse crushed a home run over the batter’s eye in center field, into the section of bleachers attached to the old-school scoreboard in center. It was Morse’s 20th homer of the year, and maybe his longest. The fans who buy tickets there do not bring their gloves to their park.
“It’s up there with my top ones that felt good,” Morse said. “But as long as it goes over, I don’t care how far.”
Garza had dominated the Nationals — he struck out nine in six innings — but Morse’s homer seemingly lifted some kind of lid. Jayson Werth smashed a single down the third base line. Jonny Gomes, starting for the third straight game, followed with a home run of his own, a high drive that snuck into the first row in left field.
Wang walked to the mound in the sixth armed with a 3-0 lead and a no-hitter. “I wasn’t thinking that much about it,” Wang said. “I just wanted to get the sinker going.”
Tony Campana led off, pinch-hitting for Garza. He bunted one pitch foul, then whacked two others foul, building a 2-2 count. Another sinker, and another groundball, laced to the right side of the infield. Morse took a quick step to his right and dove. The ball deflected off his mitt and trickled behind him.
Wang still sprinted to cover first, and second baseman Danny Espinosa scooped the ball off the dirt on the run. Espinosa buzzed a running throw to Wang, hitting him in stride just as he reached the base. If a hitter other than Campana had been running, Espinosa’s fabulous play would have preserved Wang’s no-hitter. Instead, Campana beat him by a step, and the Cubs had a ‘one’ in their hit column.
Wang stranded Campana on second base with three consecutive outs. He threw a sinker with his final pitch, 93 mph, and Blake DeWitt hit a groundball to second base. Wang trudged back into the dugout and grabbed a bat, ready to hit, but Johnson wanted to protect his shoulder — he said afterward he would have pulled Wang even if he still had the no-hitter. He shook Wang’s hand and told him, “Good job.”
Since the Nationals signed Wang in February 2010, they had waited for a night like this. “Light years,” McCatty said, asked how far Wang had come.
Afterward, about 75 Taiwanese fans lined up in the Wrigley Field concourse, so dense and large in number they created a surreal traffic jam as fans left the park. As he sat in the clubhouse, Wang could hear them chanting: “Chien-Ming Wang! Chien-Ming Wang!”