The results in Chien-Ming Wang's first two months back in the majors after shoulder surgery - a grand experiment with little precedent in baseball - have reflected a mediocre pitcher capable of impressive starts on some days and uneven ones on others. But Nationals manager Davey Johnson sees a different progression.
Wang has made 10 starts since coming back from an operation that caused him to miss two years, and each time he's stepped on the mound, Johnson has seen him develop more trust in his right arm, becoming less afraid to let the ball go and gaining more control over the sinker that helped him win 19 games in 2006 and 2007.
The right-hander pitched 6 2/3 innings on Sunday, making his longest start since June 10, 2008 and allowing three runs in the Nationals' 4-3 win over the Marlins. His sinker was sharp, and he threw it 64 times in 93 pitches. Even the one he threw on Brett Hayes' two-run homer was well-placed; Hayes "just kind of cheated and caught it out front," Johnson said. Other than Wang throwing a curveball to Gaby Sanchez and giving up a home run there, instead of throwing him a sinker, Johnson had no issues with the way Wang pitched in the win.
"His slider's been more consistent, everything about him has been more consistent," Johnson said. "And I love his competitiveness. That comes out any time he's in a little jam."
Wang likely has one start left this season, pitching next Saturday against the Braves. After that, of course, comes the obvious question: Will he be back in Washington next year?
The Nationals will need a veteran starter in their rotation next season, to follow Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. League sources expect them to be active in the pitching market this winter, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them pursue a pitcher like the Rangers' C.J. Wilson or the White Sox's Mark Buehrle to solidify the middle of the rotation.
But there could be a place for Wang, too, if the price is right. He'll be a free agent this winter, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the Nationals try to bring him back on a one-year deal. With young starters like Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock still finding their way in the rotation, Wang could give them a stable presence, and if they sign him to a one-year deal, he could be a nice trade chip in the event that one of their young pitchers is ready.
The Nationals spent $2 million on the pitcher last year, working with him through rehab for an entire season and bringing him back on an incentive-laden deal with a $1 million base salary this year. Part of the reason for re-signing Wang was to build loyalty in the event he got back to being his old self. Now that he looks like he could be headed in that direction, the Nationals hope their plan pays off.
"Hopefully I can come back here. 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."
And the way Wang has pitched this year has made Johnson a believer in his future.
"As far as I'm concerned," Johnson said, "ever since he's started throwing again, he's a keeper."