At the beginning of Chien-Ming Wang's first season in Washington, the Nationals were cautiously optimistic he'd be back from shoulder surgery by the middle of the season, able to help their young rotation and provide some return on the incentive-laden deal with a $2 million base salary.
At the end of last season, the Nationals knew enough not to be so bold. The operation from which Wang was returning - surgery to repair a torn capsule in his right shoulder - was unprecedented enough that there was no blueprint for how long it would take and no expectation for what the Nationals might get when he finally returned. They brought him back for 2011, on a similar deal with a $1 million base, but as much as anything else, it was because they'd spent a year helping him rehab already, so they'd might as well see it through.
But at the end of the 2011 season, Wang is more than two years and 11 major league starts removed from surgery, showing no ill effects from the operation and getting stronger each time he pitched. And after he closed his comeback with a flourish on Saturday, there was every reason to expect there might be more for him in Washington.
The Taiwanese right-hander allowed one run in six innings in a 4-1 win over the Braves, giving up only a solo homer to Freddie Freeman in the fifth inning. He needed only 85 pitches to get through his start, and his secondary pitches looked as strong as they have all season. And once again, Wang had manager Davey Johnson openly campaigning for his return.
"Just a remarkable season," Johnson said. "I was actually nervous after the sixth inning. I know he could have continued. He was throwing that good. But as far as I was concerned, I just wanted to shake his hand. I didn't want to have to go out and get him. What a great comeback, and a great game. It's just been steady progress, and the best is yet to come. It was a remarkable effort."
Several times on Saturday, Johnson referenced seeing Wang throw in Florida in December, if only to call attention to how tenuous his comeback was even then. The right-hander still was struggling to build arm strength, and when he cut short a simulated game in spring training, it looked again like the Nationals were spending money on a player they wouldn't see.
Instead, they've built goodwill with a pitcher who could be a fixture in their rotation next year. General manager Mike Rizzo has a solid relationship with Wang's agent, Alan Nero, and the two sides are talking about a deal for 2012. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Nationals bring the 31-year-old back, before another team has a chance to offer him a deal with the hope he can get back to being the pitcher that won 19 games in 2006 and 2007 for the Yankees.
In some senses, Wang probably won't be the same pitcher again. His sinker in those days routinely hit 94 mph; he's pitching more in the low 90s now, relying on placement and his off-speed pitches to get the groundouts on which he's always thrived. But even with slightly reduced velocity, he's doing that as well as he was before surgery; he entered the day with a 53.4% ground ball percentage, a tick better than his 53.3% mark in 2009.
"He threw harder with the Yankees," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "But you don't need to throw hard. If you locate your pitches in the corners and get ahead in the count, speed doesn't mean anything. You can have a guy that throws 97, but if he gets behind in the count and puts it over the middle, a big league hitter is going to hit it out of the park. If you have a guy that hits the corners and gets ahead in the count, that's different."
Wang's ability to do that is what the Nationals were hoping to cultivate the entire time, and he should be sharper in the spring after getting an offseason free of a rehab throwing program. Next season, the Nationals could finally be in position to reap the benefits.
"I wish I could pitch a couple more games," Wang said through his interpreter, John Hsu. "As many outings as I get, I feel my shoulder is stronger. My breaking ball is coming back. I'm looking forward to doing it more."