It happened in Houston when he was rounding third. He knew it. Third base coach Bobby Meacham knew it. There was a “pop”–an athlete’s nightmare sound–and a stutter-step, and before the 2008 Yankees could celebrate their widening sixth-inning lead over the Astros, their ace was coming up limping across home plate.
From the beginning of 2006 until his injury, Chien-Ming Wang had been as steady as anyone who toed the rubber. With a leaden sinker and an unflappable demeanor, Wang put together a 3.74 ERA to go along with his 46-15 record, which was good for best in the league over that time. And though he struggled in the postseason, the 2006 Cy Young runner-up gave the Yankees length (6.5 IP/start), efficiency (20% ground ball double play rate), and a near-sure win every five days (the 6.0 runs of support per game didn’t hurt, either) for almost three seasons.
And then there was Houston. Houston and a “pop” and a Lisfranc tear, and a rotation stalwart would never be the same.
For as good–as dependable and efficient and promising–as his career was in its early stages, Wang would barely sniff at success following the injury. His 2009 campaign was marred by mechanical problems (likely a result of over-compensating for the sprain) and eventual shoulder surgery. At the end of the year, the pitcher many once thought might garner an eight-figure deal was non-tendered a contract by the Yankees–nearly unthinkable a few seasons before. And though the Nationals took a few flyers on him, an extended rehab of his right shoulder, further injuries, and general ineffectiveness made him nearly unrecognizable from his glory days. In two greatly abbreviated seasons with the Nats, Wang went 6-6 with a 4.94 ERA and 1.532 WHIP–a far cry from his back-to-back 19-win years with the Yankees. Suddenly, Houston seemed like several lifetimes ago.
Luckily for Wang, his former team has an excellent memory.
On March 25, the Yankees signed Wang, 32, to a minor league contract, with a major league option worth up to $3 million. The righty had reached out to teams in early February, going so far as to throw a bullpen at the home of Yankees’ spring training instructor (and former pitching expert) Billy Connors. But it was his performance at the World Baseball Classic that solidified the team’s interest. In two starts for Chinese Taipei, Wang pitched 12 shutout innings, allowing 10 hits and walking one. His reported fastball speed of 90-93mph (though neither confirmed, and in outings since, duplicated) and retooled arsenal added to his hypothetical value.
Reclamation projects are nothing new in baseball, though teams are not in the business of being charities. In Wang, the Yankees see a low-risk, high-reward pitcher, similar to the chances they gave Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia in 2011, but with an undeniable sentimentality. He’s their guy–their former ace gone astray–and if he makes good for the team that’s showing faith in him one more time, the payout figures to extend beyond the stat sheet.
Wang, for his part, is pleased with the signing: “It was an easy decision for me (to sign back with the Yankees) because I never wanted to leave,” Wang told LoHud’s Chad Jennings back in March. “… It’s like back in the day. This was my first team, this is where I started. I feel great.”
Heartwarming potential aside, the Yankees are hoping Wang continues to feel great. In his first Triple-A start on Saturday, the righty allowed six hits over a scoreless 5.1 innings. Showing some newfound versatility since his last stint in the Yankees’ system, Wang mixed in some curveballs and changeups with his usual sinker and slider, including a particularly nasty changeup to record a strikeout, according to Jeff Norton at YESnetwork.com.
The outing was one small step forward–Wang will need to prove that he can sustain that level of efficacy over several outings before the Yankees consider moving him up. Still, early returns are intriguing, and if nothing else, the threat of losing a roster spot could motivate a pitcher like Ivan Nova (1-1, 6.14), who has yet to look completely comfortable on the mound this season.
The odds that Wang will return to his early form are unlikely. One afternoon in Houston took care of that. Shoulder surgery took care of that. General regression will take care of the rest. But, for now, the possibility that he could contribute in a meaningful way is enough to keep watching. Chien-Ming Wang is back home.
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II).