ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - By manager Buck Showalter’s count, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen has gone to a three-ball count only five times in his last two starts.
Chen is only the second pitcher from Taiwan to win 10 games in a season, joining Chien-Ming Wang in 2006 and 2007.
Has he exceeded expectations in his first year in the U.S.?
“It’s hard to say because we didn’t know that much about him coming in,” said pitching coach Rick Adair. “All the challenges he has to face daily and throughout this first year, you really don’t know how anybody is going to respond. So, is he beyond expectations? I don’t know where the expectations were to begin with.
“He’s done well. He’s a guy who really works and applies and is prepared. He’s much stronger now than he was at the beginning of the season. He’s met a lot of challenges. Everything he goes through is new to him, so I don’t know about the expectations, but he’s done a great job for us.”
Chen struck out 12 batters in his last start, but he lasted only 5 2/3 innings. Tonight, he struck out four and went seven innings.
“It always bothers me when a guy goes out and strikes out the side in the first inning, because a lot of times they get in strikeout mode,” Adair said. “Obviously, he had great location against Oakland and pitched extremely well, but his pitch count got up real high and as the game went along they started taking pitches. But tonight, the club over here is pretty aggressive and they go against scouting reports. Like with Tommy (Hunter) last night, they know he’s going to attack the zone, they know Wei-Yin’s going to attack the zone and they come out swinging.”
Asked what’s impressed him the most about Chen this season, Adair said, “Obviously, he’s got a great feel to pitch, but I think the most amazing thing about him is how he interacts in this clubhouse and how teammates have accepted him. He’s one of the guys even though there’s a huge language barrier.”
Chen also fields his position, which always helps the cause.
“Unbelievable,” Adair said. “He made two really good plays tonight. He probably had a chance to make two more that he didn’t get and he was upset about that. You can’t really bunt on him because he has so much range and he’s so quick off the mound that it’s tough to bunt on him. And this club does a lot of that.”
Chen also is a fierce competitor, though it doesn’t show as he smiles easily and jokes with Orioles teammates and reporters.
“He’s extremely competitive,” Adair said. “I wouldn’t say he’s a perfectionist in his preparation, but he challenges himself in his preparation, so it’s good.”
Chen has been able to command an assortment of pitches, and he’ll only get better as his changeup improves.
“It’s helped,” Adair said. “It’s still got a long ways to go. If we can get that thing softened up to the 82-84 mph range, I think it’s going to be a huge weapon for him, but right now it’s still a little hard.”
Showalter removed Chen after 100 pitches. The left-hander threw 108 in 5 2/3 innings against Oakland.
“His pitch count was down,” Showalter said. “He’s made a lot of quality pitches down. His changeup has come so far. He’s not a guy who you can just go out there and sit on one pitch with. He’s so athletic that he seems to help himself defensively, too. You pitch like that and you pound the zone, and you’re going to get some good defensive plays like he had made behind him.
“I don’t think he gets strikeout hungry. He’s just trying to make quality pitches and he’s got so many counts in his favor. He’s got a good understanding of what’s going on up here at this level right now, and we hope to ride it.”
Chen seems to be getting stronger, and it didn’t hurt that he got an extra day’s rest before tonight’s start.
“It was very tempting to pitch him yesterday, but we’re going to be careful with his innings and manage his starts,” Showalter said. “He was a little sore after the seventh there. Normally, you might think about continuing him, but hopefully that’ll be in September. But like we’ve done all year, we’re going to be careful with him.”
Catcher Matt Wieters said one key tonight was Chen’s ability to locate the fastball down.
“He was able to get strike one down in the zone and mixed in his changeup a little bit more than we have in the past few starts,” Wieters said. “His breaking stuff’s been something that’s really come along throughout the year. Put that on top of his fastball that he can locate, he had it all working tonight.”
What’s impressed Wieters the most about Chen?
“I’m impressed by how he handles it,” Wieters said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s won his last five or lost his last five, he just goes out there and competes and he’s out there to give you innings and give your team a chance to win, which is huge. He’s been in some big situations this year, some big games, and they haven’t really gotten to him that much.”