Chien-Ming Wang is nearly four years removed from his days as the ace of the New York Yankees’ staff, the sensation with the ridiculous sinker whom Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo called “the Michael Jordan of Taiwan” upon his arrival with the team nearly 20 months ago. Wang has had his trials in Washington, his recovery from a surgically repaired right shoulder delaying his return to form.
But he appears to have regained trust in his armory — that filthy sinker, the improved slider — and, with the exception of perhaps two misguided pitches, he probably never looked better in a Nationals uniform than he did on Sunday, when he helped his team end a five-game losing streak to the Florida Marlins with a 4-3 victory at Nationals Park.
“My arm feels good,” Wang said through an interpreter after collecting his first win in a month. “I feel the improvement during this outing.”
Wang retired the first eight batters he faced and held the Marlins scoreless through the first four innings. He struck out five batters in 62 / 3 innings, his only mistakes a slider that Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez stroked for a solo home run in the fifth, and a sinker that didn’t sink enough to keep catcher Brett Hayes from sending it over the left field fence for a two-out, two-run homer in the seventh.
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson could only find fault with one of those pitches. “I always hate it when a guy with a good sinker gives up a home run on a breaking ball. So he was 50-50 today with me,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’ve said all along every time he goes out there, I’ve seen a little bit of improvement. And that’s been from his first start. . . . I think the best is still yet to come with him.”
Surrendering three runs would have been trouble for any other game this weekend, with the Nationals scoring just one run through the series’ first 23 innings, including a 13-inning marathon on Saturday. But for the first time in this three-game series, the Nationals were efficient with their at-bats, manufacturing enough offense despite being held to just five hits. In doing so, the Nationals set a franchise record for home wins in a season with 42.
Late-season call-up and 2006 first-round pick Chris Marrero had two RBI as the Nationals avoided getting swept in consecutive series against the Marlins.
“We can’t beat the Marlins,” Johnson said, sarcastically, before answering questions after the game.
Marrero drove in Jonny Gomes with a sacrifice fly in the second inning and knocked home Danny Espinosa with a ground-rule double in the fourth that served as the decisive run. Espinosa drove home Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse with a single up the middle that bounced just above the glove of Marlins center fielder Bryan Petersen for an error. As Petersen chased down the ball, Morse scored and Espinosa advanced to third.
“I don’t think that was too high on our concerns to snap a streak,” Gomes said of finally defeating the Marlins. “It was just getting some baseball situations pointing north.”
The situation appears to be pointing north for Wang, who evened his record at 3-3 and earned an extra $100,000 on his incentive-laden, one-year deal after making his 10th start of the season. He hasn’t pitched this late in the season since 2007, with a foot injury cutting short his 2008 season and his shoulder sabotaging his past two seasons.
Gomes faced Wang when he played for Tampa Bay and said Wang is starting to resemble the pitcher he was in New York. “He was one of the ambassadors, if you will, of that power sinker. There weren’t many guys doing it when he was doing it. Velocity is not where it was when he was in New York, but he’s become a smarter pitcher, using his other stuff. He’s doing a great job. Things are looking up for him. Take this offseason, strengthen that shoulder and it will be good to get him back on our team. He’s going to be at the top end of the rotation, absolutely.”
The Nationals have invested $3 million in Wang since the Yankees cut ties with him in 2009, putting the responsibility of repairing the torn capsule in his right shoulder with another franchise. Johnson has watched Wang get better since seeing him pitch last December and said he hoped that the Nationals would bring him back to have him as part of the rotation for a full season.
“Hopefully I can come back here, but the decision is made by the team, but personally I would like to come back,” Wang said. “I really appreciate their patience the last two years. Hopefully in the future I can win more games for them.”