VIERA, Fla. - Chien-Ming Wang threw a bullpen session on Sunday, after pitching in an intrasquad game on March 4. He cut that game short after feeling tightness in his arm at the end of the first inning, instead of pitching the second inning he was supposed to throw.
Those are the facts of Wang's rehab from shoulder surgery this spring, and the Nationals say there's not much more to interpret from the pitcher's schedule than those. His 2009 operation, and the process of coming back from that surgery, is unique enough that they can't match it up to the timetable of previous pitchers. They're left to take events as singular occurrences, disparate data points that don't fit neatly in a linear progression, and wait until they see bona fide signs that the right-hander is ready to pitch in a game.
"Chien-Ming is continuing to throw," trainer Lee Kuntz said. "With him, it's a gradual process, ebb and flow, you take him up a level, you see how he responds, and you reformulate your plan from there. He threw in that game over on the minor league side. He became a little sore. We backed off a little bit; I wouldn't call it a setback by any means. He's continuing to throw. He's throwing in the bullpen, and when we determine he's ready to throw in a game, we'll discuss that as a staff."
But, Kuntz asserted at the end of his update, "(Wang) is making progress."
That may be the case, but days are ticking off the calendar just like last year, when Wang didn't pitch in a major league game after signing a $2 million contract, and just like they always will. Manager Jim Riggleman said on March 5 that he'd expect Wang to be ready by May, and ruled him out of the Nationals' opening day roster yesterday.
Wang was clocked in the low-to-mid 80s in the intrasquad game, and Kuntz said he isn't throwing most of his pitches at full speed in his bullpen sessions, where he's working on his mechanics with pitching coach Steve McCatty. The Nationals have said many times that Wang's operation has little precedent in baseball, comparing it more to the injury New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees sustained in 2005 with the San Diego Chargers. He came back in a year, but he's not being asked to throw a baseball 100 times, with varying speeds and degrees of break, 35 times a year.
Kuntz said he continues to see signs of progress in Wang's bullpen sessions and the way he's responding to them. Those signs aren't as easy to track as they are with most injuries, though, and in the end, the science of Wang's rehab is couched in the Nationals' ultimate belief they're doing the right things.
"We continue to listen to him. He continues to tell us how his body feels after we take steps forward," Kuntz said. "That's all we're trying to do - just make sure we don't drop the rock on anybody."