By most metrics, Chien-Ming Wang's second start in the majors was better than his first one; he pitched deeper into the game (working five innings and 86 pitches instead of four and 60) and had better movement on his sinker, getting 10 groundouts against three flyouts.
But more than anything else, his outing in the Nationals' 6-4 loss to the Braves on Wednesday afternoon was another reminder of how laborious - and occasionally, frustrating - of a process it will be to come all the way back from a shoulder operation the Nationals have said had no precedent in baseball.
He allowed six runs (though only two of them were earned) on seven hits in five innings in his second consecutive loss. And four runs were unearned because of a throwing error Wang made in the fifth inning after fielding a grounder.
There are no expectations on Wang to become a mainstay in the Nationals' rotation this year; the team has spent a year and a half helping him through the rehab process after he tore the capsule in his right shoulder, and has spent the entire process knowing the Taiwanese pitcher was a gamble, not a sure thing. He's pitching in games that count now, though, and he was well aware the Nationals missed a chance to sweep the Braves on Wednesday because of how he pitched.
"I didn't complete my job today," he said, through interpreter John Hsu. "I didn't help the team win the game."
He had trouble at times throwing his sinker for strikes, which forced him to come over the plate, and his secondary pitches - the ones that require the most arm strength and the ones that manager Davey Johnson thought would be the last to return - clearly aren't there yet. He hung a curveball to Dan Uggla in the fifth inning for a three-run homer that put the Braves up 6-0.
"We were ahead in the count," catcher Jesus Flores said. "He was trying to throw it down in the dirt."
The Nationals rallied for four runs in the sixth inning, but a 22-minute rain delay that came in the middle of the inning short-circuited their rally, and they couldn't do anything against the Braves' dominant bullpen.
In the process, they fell back to four games below .500, instead of finishing a sweep of the National League wild card leaders and heading into a 10-game road trip with a surge of momentum. They're at the point of trying to make determinations about their future while still trying to win games, and in Wang's case, that's going to be especially tricky to manage.
"He was crisper. His ball was moving more," Johnson said. "He threw some good breaking balls. It was a step in the right direction."