Poise and humor carry Wang far
Young right-hander impressives, entertains teammates
By Ryan Mink / MLB.com
Chien-Ming Wang has a 4.01 ERA over 21 starts and 139 innings this season.
NEW YORK — Chien-Ming Wang sat peacefully at his locker, flipping through a Lexus brochure while listening to his iPod. Nobody took notice and Wang certainly isn’t one to stir up the clubhouse.
Yankees third-base coach Larry Bowa, on the other hand, likes to bark at players during walks from the bathroom to the coaches’ room. His target that day was Wang, the quiet Taiwan native.
“What the [heck] did you do, Wang?” Bowa shouted, breaking the room’s near silence. Bowa was insinuating that Wang had ditched his pregame routine despite seeing the pitcher’s sweat-drenched back.
“Get outta here!”
Wang just stared up in confusion, pretending not to know what Bowa was saying. It’s all part of his act and almost fooled Bowa.
“Every time I get on him, he pitches eight innings,” Bowa explained to a somewhat bewildered Shawn Chacon.
It seems that added stress almost fuels Wang, who at the age of 26 has become one of the best young pitchers in baseball. But it’s humor that has made him fit into the Yankees’ clubhouse.
Wang returns the joke when the game starts. As the Yankees prepare for their first inning at the plate, Wang points to Bowa in the dugout and yells, “Out,” signaling for him to get out and coach third base.
“The things that he says and the way he says them are just priceless,” first baseman Andy Phillips said with a broad smile on his face.
Wang, a six-year United States resident, still speaks very broken English — although his coaches say he knows more than he lets on. Wang said he requested a translator in the Minors, but “it never happened.”
Now he doesn’t want one. Wang enjoys soaking in the language.
He gets some English lessons from his apartment neighbors, but doesn’t plan on taking any formal tutoring. Wang often spends his time memorizing funny one-liners to use with his teammates, but Bowa said they aren’t fit to print.
Most of the time Wang sits silently facing his locker, as if he doesn’t want to bother anybody.
“He doesn’t really understand where he fits in this clubhouse yet,” Bowa said. “But everybody looks at him in a different light. They look at him as a star, as a high-priced performer. And they count on him every time he pitches.”
Whenever his teammates talk about him there are two things they mention — Wang feels no pressure and has one killer sinker.
It’s the first attribute that has made the second-year starter tailor-made to play in baseball’s premier pressure-cooker.
“I’m sure there have been times, but I’ve never seen him get excited or upset about anything,” Mike Mussina said with a laugh. “I don’t know if that’s the language barrier or just how he is. But being a pitcher, that’s a good thing to have.”
On June 18 at Washington, Wang took a one-run lead into the ninth inning, but allowed a walk-off homer to Ryan Zimmerman. It was the only time any of his coaches or teammates could remember seeing Wang show any emotion, as he threw his glove upon returning to the dugout.
The next day, pitching coach Ron Guidry joked with Wang, telling him that the next time he sent him out to finish off a complete game, he better do it. Guidry told Wang that if he didn’t pitch well in his next start, they were going to fight the next day in the bullpen.
Wang went seven innings and picked up a win in his next outing.
“I’ve come to learn that nothing really fazes him,” Guidry said. “I don’t know if it’s that he’s not caught up in the realm of where he’s at, what all this stuff means. He just goes out and pitches and tries to do the best job he can.”
Wang (14-11, 4.01 ERA) leads the Yankees with 12 starts of at least seven innings and averages near 6 2/3 innings per start. Wang is eighth in the Major Leagues entering Thursday’s action in innings pitched in 21 starts.
Asked if he has been pleased with his success, Wang shook his hand as if to say, “So-so.”
“Maybe lucky?” he said with a bashful grin. “I want better, better, better.”
Catcher Jorge Posada says without hesitation that Wang has the best stuff in the Yankees’ rotation. Guidry feels Wang could be an ace for the Yankees, if not another team, in a couple years.
While Wang can throw as hard as Randy Johnson, he averages fewer than three strikeouts per nine innings. Guidry said Wang could blow away opponents with a mid-90s fastball if he wanted to, but Wang would rather throw his devastating sinker.
“That’s his bread-and-butter pitch,” Guidry said. “It’s like a bowling bowl. When you watch guys hit it, it doesn’t go anywhere.”
Wang learned the sinker when he attended the Taipei College of Physical Education in Taiwan. But it’s not the groundball pitch that has made Wang seem like a steady veteran in just his sophomore season.
“I just think the Asian guys who come over here are so well schooled,” Bowa said, also using Hideki Matsui as evidence. “Their work ethic is second to none. They’ve just been taught all along the way how way you play the game. You respect the game.”
That was never more evident in Wang’s next to last start against the Mariners. Wang didn’t have his best stuff and was constantly in trouble. Three Alex Rodriguez errors behind him didn’t help.
But Wang never lost his composure and allowed just two earned runs in seven innings to pick up the win.
Asked about the errors after the game, Wang simply said, “Nobody’s perfect.”
It’s as if Wang has been in the league for years. Even before Wang made his Major League debut in April 2005, manager Joe Torre said he was pleased with flashes of veteran poise from the pitcher. Now Torre counts on Wang to give the bullpen a rest every fifth day.
“We rely on him,” Torre said. “When you put him in the company of Randy and Moose, that’s a pretty good neighborhood. He’s earned that spot. Unfortunately [because he’s so young] we expect him to do well all the time.”
But despite his success, Wang remains a pitcher not too many teams know about.
Mariners batting coach Jeff Pentland hadn’t heard much about Wang — other than that he had a good sinker — before facing him on July 17. After spending a couple hours of watching him on tape, Pentland compared Wang to Roy Halladay, the Blue Jays’ former Cy Young winner.
“I’m sure he could care less if anybody knows who he was,” Phillips said.
That’s just the way Wang is.