Thu, Jul 28, 2011 - Page 20 News List

FEATURE: Wang Chien-ming capping a slow comeback

NY Times News Service, MOOSIC, PENNSYLVANIA

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as the saying goes, few can relate as literally as Wang Chien-ming. For him, the journey of a thousand setbacks began with a single misstep in Houston, more than three years ago.

On Sunday it led him here, to a ballpark nestled in a mountain, still seeking the deadliest sinker in baseball.

It may never return.

“I try,” Wang said in the clubhouse at PNC Field after a loss for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Class AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. “I try.”

Wang threw one sinker at 94mph (151kph) in his last start, against Buffalo, but on Sunday, he topped out at 91mph. He tied up some hitters with a slider, but did not generate ground balls the way he used to. Eighteen batters put the ball in play off him. Half were in the air.

It was Wang’s sixth rehabilitation start and for the Nationals there will be no more auditions. He cannot make another start in the 30-day time frame for a rehabilitation assignment. Wang’s next appearance is scheduled to come tomorrow in a return to the majors in Washington, against the Mets.

The Nationals have invested US$3 million in Wang since the New York Yankees cut him after the 2009 season, letting someone else rebuild his damaged shoulder.

“I think he’s close to being ready,” said Randy Knorr, the Syracuse manager. “Timetable-wise, obviously, you’d like to see some guys have a little more time. We don’t have that time, but I think he can compete up there, I really do.”

For more than three years, Wang competed at an extraordinary level for the Yankees. He helped save the 2005 season with eight victories in 17 starts. The next season, he was the runner-up for the AL Cy Young Award. He won 19 games again in 2007 and twice was the Yankees’ No. 1 starter in the playoffs.

He was off to a good start in 2008, his bowling-ball sinker -bearing down and in on right-handed hitters, as heavy and reliable as ever. However, that June 15, in a game against the Houston Astros, Wang stepped awkwardly while rounding third base. He sprained a ligament, tore a tendon in his right foot and hobbled into oblivion.

As Wang remembers, Yankees trainer Gene Monahan told him he might be healthy for the playoffs. However, there were no playoffs for the Yankees that fall. He reported for spring training the next February and everything had changed.

“I did not use my legs to pitch,” Wang said. “Only the arm.”

The 2009 Yankees were destined for glory, but Wang was little help. He went 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA, the highest in team history for a pitcher with at least 40 innings.

On his next-to-last pitch, against Toronto on July 4 that year, Wang gave up a home run to Adam Lind. Asked on Sunday to describe the sensation on that pitch, Wang put his fists together, pulled them apart, and then pulled them back together. It felt dislocated, he was saying, but only for a moment. The next pitch, to Scott Rolen, was 86mph, alarmingly slow for his sinker.

“I knew something was wrong,” Wang said.

He had torn his shoulder capsule and would be a spectator at the World Series.

Wang joined the celebration on the field; his smiling face bobs along with the rest of the gang on the cover of the official World Series DVD. He had a seat on a parade float down Broadway and received a championship ring, but are the memories good or bad?

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