Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2011

Two Nats Recreate The Past, Hoping It’s The Future

Twice this week the long-suffering fans of the Washington Nationals got to consider the possibility that brighter days might finally be on the horizon. On Sunday 23-year old Stephen Strasburg took the mound in a live game situation for the first time in almost a year. It was August 21, 2010, when Strasburg injured himself while facing the Philadelphia Phillies. Two weeks after that bleak day for the Nats, Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery; and then began the long slow process of recovery. Sunday that process took a giant leap forward when Strasburg made his first rehab start for Single-A Hagerstown.

The appearance was predictably modest statistically. Scheduled to throw just two innings or 30 pitches, whichever came first, Strasburg was lifted after 1 2/3 innings and one pitch more than his announced limit. In all he faced just eight batters, throwing mostly fast balls. But those slight numbers do not tell the whole tale. Of the 31 pitches Strasburg threw, 25 were for strikes, including his first 8 deliveries. Of the eight batters, half were retired on strikeouts. Most impressively, the fast balls were generating readings of 96 and 98 on the radar gun. Yes it was only 31 pitches and it was only Single-A. But in that small snapshot Nationals fans could see once again hints of the dominance that their young phenom displayed in his first abbreviated season.

At this point in the lengthy rehab process, Washington’s management is more concerned about mechanics than results. Early reports on that front are positive. Strasburg himself has said that he has used the year-long layoff to improve his overall conditioning, and believes his delivery motion is better than it was pre-surgery. He reported no pain or ill effects from the outing in Hagerstown, and Friday he will take the mound again, this time for Class-A Potomac.

In his second start his pitch count will be upped to 50 or three innings, followed in the every fifth day routine of a major league starter by limits of 60 pitches or four innings and 80 pitches or five. Then, if all has continued to go well, Stephen Strasburg may once again don the red cap with the curly-W on the front and return to the majors little more than a year after his surgery.

Two days after Strasburg’s appearance in Hagerstown, 31-year old Chien-Ming Wang strode to the mound at Wrigley Field in Chicago for his third appearance in a Nationals uniform. Twice a 19-game winner and the ace of the Yankees’ staff in 2006 and 2007, Wang’s career was derailed by a freak accident in June 2008. In an interleague game at Houston, Wang tore a ligament in his right foot while running the bases, something an American League pitcher would never do except during interleague play. The injury not only cost Wang the remainder of the 2008 season, it resulted in a changed delivery motion when he returned the following year.

With a release point five inches higher than prior to his injury, Wang’s sinker was ineffective at the beginning of 2009. After a handful of disappointing outings, he went back on the disabled list to work on his mechanics. While he returned to the Yankees rotation briefly, he returned to the DL in mid-July and underwent major shoulder surgery shortly thereafter, ending his career in pinstripes.

Signed by Washington prior to last season, Wang, like Strasburg, has traveled the long lonely road of recovery from a potentially devastating injury. When he finally returned to the majors on July 29, it was two years to the day since the operation to repair a torn capsule in his right shoulder. That initial outing, in which Wang surrendered six runs in four innings, was not promising. His next start, in which he again allowed six runs, but only two earned, over five innings, was only slightly better. But in both of those starts he threw a variety of pitches, seemingly no longer trusting the once-devastating sinker that had made him one of the premiere pitchers in the game.

After those two starts Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty all but ordered Wang to rely on his sinker. Tuesday in Chicago he finally did, and Nats fans caught a glimpse of a dominant past that could yet be part of their future. Of the 81 pitches Wang threw over six innings 66 were sinkers, many in the low-90’s. With enough of the dramatic movement that Wang at his best could put on his signature pitch, one Cub batter after another swung over the ball. Eleven of the eighteen outs he recorded were on ground balls. The only hit off Wang did not come until the 6th inning, and even that was an infield single on a ground ball. With six frames of scoreless, one-hit work, and on the strength of Washington’s plating three runs in the top of the 6th, Chien-Ming Wang had his first major league victory since June 28, 2009.

One good outing can remind fans of what once was; but it does not guarantee that it will truly be so again. Both Strasburg and Wang remain on the road to full recovery, and that is a road all too often marked by detours and dead ends. To that end GM Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nationals decision-makers will be well advised to handle both pitchers carefully. With the longest season in sports into its final two months and the Nats scuffling along a few games below .500, Strasburg and Wang are much more important to future seasons in Washington than they are to the current campaign. In the space of a couple of days this week Nationals fans got a tantalizing glimpse of just how very important the two right-handers might yet be.

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