Sunday was just the latest chapter in the comeback of Chien-Ming Wang. Until he tired in the seventh inning, Wang dominated the Florida Marlins for 6 2/3 innings. The last batter he faced, backup catcher Brett Hayes, lined a sinker that didn't sink into the stands in left field, but up until that point he'd allowed just one earned run on five hits. Wang struck out five and, most importantly, did not walk a batter.
Wang was sharp from the very beginning, using his always-present sinker to limit Florida to just one base runner through four innings, a soft single to his opposite number, Marlins starter Brad Hand. He ran into a little trouble in the sixth, but got out of the jam by inducing yet another ground ball out. He was economical with his pitches, and with renewed confidence in his slider was able to induce a few swing-and-misses with two strikes. It's a formula he used to notch consecutive 19-win seasons for the Yankees in the not-too-distant past.
He's not quite all the way back though, and the big question is, will he ever be? His fastball velocity this season has averaged just a tick over 90 mph, when in his heyday he threw that hard sinker at 94. He's given up seven homers in 56 1/3 innings, 1.11 per nine innings, which is almost double his career average. And his groundout-to-flyout rate of 1.50 - while good - is nowhere near his elite career average of 2.24. Will he get those 4 mph back after a winter of strength conditioning to return him to that elite level? Only time will tell.
So, can the Wang we saw against the Marlins - and a few other times in his 10 starts - be a contributing member of this rotation going forward? Both Wang and his manager, Davey Johnson, said after the game they'd both like that to happen. Wang told reporters, through his translator, that he'd like very much to stay in Washington next season.
"Hopefully, I can come back here. The decision is made by the team, but personally, I would like to come back. ... I really appreciate their patience the last two years. Hopefully in the future, I can win more games for them," he said.
Johnson has been effusive in his praise for Wang since the Taiwan native made his return to the big leagues after two years of rehabilitation from major shoulder surgery. Johnson reiterated after Sunday's win that he thinks Wang is just scratching the surface of what he can be again.
"I've said all along, every time he goes out there, I've seen a little bit of improvement," Johnson said. "I think the main thing is he's starting to trust that he's healthy. He's throwing more quality pitches."
Obviously, the top of the Nats' rotation next year will be filled out by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. John Lannan has certainly done enough this season to keep his spot in the middle of the order. Tom Milone and Brad Peacock both were dominant in the minors and have shown flashes with the big club after the rosters expanded in September. Ross Detwiler (2-5, 3.76 ERA) has done enough to keep his name in the competition. There are others coming still. General manager Mike Rizzo might even want to test the free agent waters and bring in a bigger name to stabilize a very young staff, though my view would be to spend that money on an on-base machine, preferably one that can play center field.
But if Wang truly is finding the secret to his success from his New York days, he could fill that veteran role that Livan Hernandez occupied the last two seasons for the Nationals. Both parties have a vested interest: Wang feels a responsibility to the Nats for allowing him the time to rehab and get back to the majors, while the Nats have essentially paid his way to get healthy and don't want to just to see him walk as a free agent with no compensation. It could be an easy negotiation. But is it the right one?
Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nationals News Network. Read Nichols' Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.