Wang pitches with authority in relief
Yanks righty makes statement with two perfect innings
ARLINGTON -- It was the most significant contribution of a Wednesday evening filled with them, and it came with the Yankees already up by six runs and the contest seemingly well in hand.
With six outs to go, Chien-Ming Wang trotted out of the bullpen and pitched as though he belonged in the starting rotation, finally showing the sink and movement that made him a two-time 19-game winner in the big leagues.
And as the Yankees headed into an off-day on Thursday, looking ahead to their four-game series against the Indians at Progressive Field, Wang's re-emergence as a potential weapon allowed them to dream big.
"That's as good as I've seen him this year, and that's the Chien-Ming Wang that we've seen so often," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It was really good to see."
It has not been an easy transition for Wang, who has appeared lost at times while the Yankees have asked him to tackle a completely unfamiliar bullpen role -- something of a last resort, as they believed he might log an emergency start that never came.
Wang said that he warmed up more quickly on Wednesday, a sign that he could be getting the hang of the relief timetable. But the most impressive aspect of his six-up, six-down showing to close out a 9-2 victory over the Rangers was the bowling-ball sink of his bread-and-butter pitch.
"It's very important for my mind," said Wang, who proclaimed that he feels "ready" to log a starting assignment again in a big league game.
His ERA dropped from 25.00 to 20.45 with the appearance, and of Wang's 26 pitches, 18 were strikes. He recorded two strikeouts, getting two outs in the air and two more on the ground.
"Today the sinker moved a lot," Wang said. "The sinker is running and goes down. The speed is faster."
Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, who threw six innings for the victory on Wednesday, has been one of Wang's biggest supporters as he attempts to reclaim what was once a No. 2 spot in New York's rotation. Watching on closed-circuit television from the visiting clubhouse in Arlington, Burnett said he applauded Wang's closing effort.
"I think it's a huge step," Burnett said. "I told him when he came back up here, whether you're coming out of the 'pen or you're starting, tell them that you're here to help and go out there with a little attitude. Show them that you want to pitch and you're going to help them wherever you're at. He worked ahead, and his ball is moving everywhere."
It isn't the first time the Yankees have lauded Wang in his unfamiliar role, as a media contingent of reporters assigned specifically to beam word of Wang's outings back to Taiwan continues to scratch their collective heads.
The Yankees tried to speak positively about Wang's outing last Friday against the Phillies, when he at least showed good pitch speed in allowing two runs on six hits. But Wang's fourth career relief outing -- he appeared once in 2005 and again in 2006 under former manager Joe Torre -- showed much more.
"We were somewhat excited about what he did against Philadelphia because the velocity was back, but tonight the velocity and the sink was back," Girardi said.
Yankees catcher Kevin Cash received Wang in both of his relief outings this season and said the difference in Wednesday's appearance was tangible.
"If you've got a sinkerballer, they're contact pitchers, roll-over ground-ball type guys," Cash said. "He got swings and misses on his sinker, that's how good it was. I think he should be really happy.
"I know everybody harps on the velocity, but the big thing is if he's got his movement. You can pitch with that kind of movement 88 to 91 [mph]. You don't have to pitch 95 to 97 with that."
In fact, Wang said that the last time he felt as good as Thursday, he was still on Minor League rehab in Tampa, Fla., officially on the disabled list with weakness in the abductor muscles of both hips.
That discounted a pair of starts for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre later, in which Wang hurled 13 consecutive scoreless innings.
He would have been primed to make another start at Pawtucket until Joba Chamberlain was struck in the right leg by a line drive, prompting pitching coach Dave Eiland to call Wang 70 miles into his trip to Rhode Island and instruct him to hang a U-turn.
Now, the Yankees face an interesting dilemma with how to proceed. There are no evident instances in which the Yankees should remove a starter from the rotation to allow Wang a chance to start.
Many assumed that Phil Hughes would eventually exit the five-man sequence for Wang, but Hughes pitched eight innings of scoreless ball on Monday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and Girardi immediately said that Hughes would make his next start.
But after Wednesday's game, Girardi said Wang was the piece of the contest that impressed him most and called it a "huge building block."
"That's what we're used to seeing, too, ground-ball outs, not a lot of pitches," Girardi said. "That's what we need to continue to see. ... I think he can be valuable wherever we put him, because he's got very, very good stuff. He's a proven winner."
Cash said that even as Wang continues to wait for his next opportunity to pitch in a first inning, the right-hander should be able to take the positives out of Wednesday night and look ahead.
"I hope he can," Cash said. "I certainly did, and I think he should. This has not been an easy process for him to get back into his rhythm. I think today was a big step for him."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.