As Davey Johnson puts it, when Chien-Ming Wang is throwing from the correct arm slot, his stuff is "almost unhittable".
The problem was, Wang was rarely throwing from the proper arm slot today. As a result, he was very hittable.
Wang allowed 12 baserunners (eight hits, three walks and a hit-by-pitch) during his 5 1/3 innings against the Mets today, and while he only gave up two runs, it wasn't the type of outing the Nationals were looking for.
Since returning to the Nats' rotation eight days ago, Wang has allowed 23 baserunners in 9 1/3, and he's put up an 0-2 record in those two starts.
"I like his arm strength and everything," Johnson said. "He's having a little problem - he gets to the side of the ball, he doesn't stay on top of it. He sometimes gets out of the slot that he needs to be in. When he gets in that slot, his stuff is outstanding. He gets to the side, and the ball is just flat and it runs (horizontally). It's just a consistency thing with him."
A sinkerball specialist, Wang is at his best when he pounds that sinker down in the zone and forces hitters to beat it into the ground.
Wang started the game by retiring the first three Mets hitters he faced in order, all on groundballs on the infield. From there, he struggled to get in a zone, loading the bases in each of the next two innings and then surrendering a two-run homer to Lucas Duda on a hanging slider in the fifth.
"I was feeling my body moved too fast, so that's why my arm was kind of low, so my wrist kind of opened," Wang said through interpreter John Hsu. "Obviously, the result was not good for the team, not good for me. So there's still a lot of things I need to improve on, and make adjustments. And hopefully I can get back to it."
Johnson said this is the same issue Wang dealt with in his previous start, and the veteran righty claims had trouble finding the proper arm slot a bit last season, as well.
The good news is that Wang knows what the problem is, and he can set out to fix it with the help of pitching coach Steve McCatty. He's still keeping his team in the game, but when he puts runners on and elevates his pitch count, it makes it tough for him to put up the type of performances the Nats have seen him deliver over the course of his career.
"He knows what he's working on," Johnson said. "The adrenaline's going, and you try to get a little extra, and sometimes he just gets it off to the side, and it has that run and is flat. But it's just occasionally. ... He's got such great movement, when he stays in the slot, his command is a lot better.
"When he's right, when he's at mid-80s pitches, he's in the seventh inning. When he's having trouble finding it, he's going to have a higher pitch count, like he did today."
Another factor to consider is that Wang missed nearly all of spring training, so in a sense, he's still working into major league form. Wang won't use that as an excuse, but Johnson knows it might take a little time for the righty to hit his stride.
"This is kind of early in his year, pitching in this level," Johnson said. "Hopefully he'll be more consistent."