BOSTON – The likelihood of taking such a perfectly imperfect step is tortuously small, no more than an inch or two in either direction needed for the subsequent five years to have played out so differently for Chien-Ming Wang.
It was June 15, 2008, and he was rounding third base toward home on a Derek Jeter single at Minute Maid Park in Houston, when his right foot landed precisely on the lip where infield dirt meets grass, immediately spraining the Lisfranc ligament and tearing the peroneal tendon in the middle of the foot.
“Just broke,” is the way he describes it. “I felt no strength, loose.”
Wang managed to score on the play, doubled over in pain after touching home plate, pointed downward, and left the field. Afterwards, Yankees co-owner Hank Steinbrenner railed against the National League’s refusal to adopt the DH, telling reporters, “it’s time the NL joined the 21st century.”
Did Wang share that anger?
“I just thought, why didn’t I learn to run the bases?” he says.
The 33-year-old right-hander has endured five years of injury, recovery, rehabilitation, doubt and, ultimately, reinvention since, all “probably because of the foot,” the native of Tainan City, Taiwan explains in clear but limited English. “It’s all together.”
Finally for Wang, there are signs that perhaps it’s all behind him, too.
The two-time 19-game winner opted out of a minor-league deal with the Yankees to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this month, and took a 1-0 record and 2.61 earned-run average over three starts into his outing Thursday night against the Boston Red Sox.
Things didn’t go nearly as well in a 7-4 loss that dropped the Blue Jays back to .500 at 38-38, as he allowed seven runs on six hits and two walks in 1.2 innings, the free passes coming to open a second frame he couldn’t escape. A Stephen Drew fly-ball misplayed in right field by Jose Bautista but strangely scored a double didn’t help, but by then things had already come off the rails.
“The first inning the sinkers got down, the second inning they were too low,” Wang said of the third shortest start in his career. “I wanted to bring them a little bit up but the sinkers were flat. … The control was not that good, the ball was in the middle, a little bit high.”
The Blue Jays tried to rally but the early seven-run hole was too much to overcome.
“He’s pitched great for us,” said manager John Gibbons. “This is just a blip.”
Still, Wang’s foot feels fine, as does hip, his surgically repaired right shoulder and his left hamstring, all of which have led him to disabled list stints. “Before a lot of people told me I will never pitch in the majors again,” he says, “so I just want to work hard and prove to people I still can pitch.”
The velocity of his peak years – when his vicious sinker averaged 93-94 m.p.h. – isn’t the same, but more judicious use of his curveball, splitter and changeup have helped to compensate for that. He’s working on a slider between starts, too.
Yet the question remains whether the new Wang will be able to hold up and maintain his early success.
“He knows the type of pitcher he is now and he knows he has to make adjustments from where he was,” says Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “We all saw him when he was great with the Yankees throwing those mid-90s sinkers that were just about unhittable at times, and got a ton of groundball outs, but he’s come to the realization that he’s a different pitcher now. …
“It’s not like we’re making stuff up out there, I’ve heard the term junk-baller and I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. His breaking ball has good spin, and he can change speeds with his split and his changeup. It’s just him evolving into a different pitcher as he gets older.”
The need for that evolution all traces back to the foot injury, which not only truncated his 2008 season, but lingered into the next year, when he struggled with weakness in his hips and eventually blew out his labrum.
Right from the outset it was clear Wang wasn’t right, his 1-6 record and 9.64 ERA underlining that in bold type. Looking back, he realizes in that compensating for the foot, he created a series of other troubles for himself.
“The velocity dropped down, I wanted to throw harder, so I used the shoulder more,” he says.
The Yankees, who signed Wang out of Taiwan when he was 19, cut ties with him after the season, and he signed with the Washington Nationals, who spent all of 2010 rehabilitating his right shoulder, eventually pitching in instructional league games that September and October.
In 2011 he pitched at four different minor-league levels before returning to the big-leagues July 29 against the New York Mets, working four innings and allowing six runs. On Aug. 9 he threw six shutout innings of one-hit ball to beat the Chicago Cubs, his first win since June 28, 2009, and finished 4-3 with a 4.04 ERA in 11 starts.
All that promise dissipated quickly last year, when trips to the disabled list due to his hamstring and right hip cost him 100 games. Wang pitched in just 10 contests, five starts, for the Nationals with a 6.68 ERA.
They parted ways once the season was over.
Wang first registered on the Blue Jays radar during the World Baseball Classic this past spring, when he took the mound for Taiwan for the first time since the 2004 Athens Olympics.
He made two starts, throwing six shutout innings in a 4-1 win over Australia before a crowd of 20,035 in Taipei, and then another six scoreless frames in the second round versus Japan in what ended as a 4-3, 10-inning loss in Tokyo.
The Blue Jays scouted both outings and came away thinking he looked healthy, and still had the guile to survive on the mound.
“Very important,” he says of what pitching in the Classic did for him. “I showed teams I can pitch, I’m healthy, I can stay on the mound and keep pitching.”
Yet they didn’t pounce then, and instead Wang signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees, looking to bring his career full circle. He made nine starts with triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre but when a call-up didn’t seem imminent and the Blue Jays had an immediate need, he opted out of his deal.
He’s making US$500,000 with the Blue Jays.
“I hurt my shoulder and my foot with the Yankees and I wanted to come back with the Yankees again. But it didn’t happen,” said Wang, who is grateful for the opportunity given to him. “Every game I feel like it’s the last game because you don’t know in the next one what happens.”
Better than most, Wang understands how much one simple step can change.