As he warmed up in the right-field bullpen prior to the game, the fans' clamouring for Chien-Ming Wang became so boisterous, catcher J.P. Arencibia kidded him about being a "rock star" back in his homeland.
Wang, 33, the fourth player from Taiwan to make the major leagues, led the American League with 19 wins for the New York Yankees in 2006, replicated the 19-win total in 2007, and in 2008 was again on a similar pace until tearing a tendon in his foot, running the bases. A shoulder injury in 2010 required surgery and for the past two seasons, he's made a total of 21 appearances for Washington while trying futilely to rediscover the magic.
In his debut for the Blue Jays on Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field, Wang gave up 10 hits and five runs, but more importantly lasted 7-1/3 innings in a game won in the 10 over the White Sox, 7-5. In the club's 64 prior games, only 12 times had a starting pitcher made it through seven innings. By consequence, the bullpen has logged more innings, and used more pitchers, than any major league team.
"It was great," said Jose Bautista, whose two-out, two-strike solo home run in the ninth inning sent the game into extra innings. "We haven't seen that on a consistent basis from the pitching staff. Even though he gave up some runs he was able to manage his pitch count and that's why he was able to stay in there."
With shortstop Jose Reyes embarking on a rehabilitation assignment Wednesday, right-hander Brandon Morrow likewise preparing to the rotation at a date to be determined, and Josh Johnson due to make his third start back from injury, the Blue Jays cling to the hope of making a serious run to climb into the playoff picture.
On the comeback trail so far, to borrow pitcher Mark Buehrle's words, it's been 'win two or three, lose two or three,' a not-good-enough trend that leaves the team buried in last place in the AL East with a 28-36 record. Exactly seven weeks remain until the trading deadline when decisions will have to be made on the likes of Johnson. The time to move, Reyes said, is now.
Critical to a run is solid starting pitching. Enter Wang, the latest hope to help stabilize the listing ship. Having rejoined the Yankees late in spring training on a minor-league contract, he'd been working at the Triple-A affiliate when the Jays came calling. He signed a $500,000 deal and with his performance Tuesday, manager John Gibbons declared he had earned another start, this Sunday in Texas.
Asked after the game if he'd been concerned his time baseball had reached an end, the 6-foot-4 right-hander nodded, and said in a whispery voice: "Just try to be happy playing baseball in minor leagues." He said the shoulder surgery, more than the foot injury, had threatened his career. "After the surgery, it hurts, this year much better, feel healthy," he said. "Last year felt much better but this year, no more pain."
His return to the majors attracted about a dozen television and print reporters from Taiwan. They witnessed three tidy innings at the outset as Wang got ahead of hitters, kept the trademark sinker down in the strike zone, and maintained a low pitch count. In the fourth inning though, he gave up a two-out RBI single to Dayan Viciedo and left a pitch up for Conor Gillaspie, who drilled a three-run homer for a 5-2 lead. Bautista ended the rally with a laser throw from right field that cut down Gordon Beckham trying to advance from first to third on a single with two out.
"It was a soft-hit ball but I attacked it aggressively, and I was able to come up with it cleanly," he said. "I kind of took a peek and it looked to me like he took a big turn around the bag. I had good momentum, took a shot at it, kept the throw low so if there was no chance, an infielder could cut it off. It worked out."
Edwin Encarnacion's 18th homer in the fifth inning off starter Jose Quintana closed the gap to 5-4. Wang escaped a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the fifth by striking out cleanup hitter Paul Konerko with a splitter that dropped into Lake Michigan, followed by a double-play liner from Dunn to shortstop Munenori Kawasaki.
"In this league, it's tough to pitch with one pitch," Arencibia said, referring to the sinker. "When he mixed in his other pitches [changeup, curveball, split fastball], that's when he started to control the game."
Some better situational hitting, in particular from the slumping Arencibia (past 10 games, 3-for-41), might have given Wang a win. The Jays went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Arencibia left five runners on base, striking out three times with runners in scoring position so there was a touch of irony in him being at the plate when Rajai Davis scored the winning run.
Bautista had hit a hanging slider for the solo homer in the ninth, his third shot in two games spoiling Addison Reed's bid for a 20 save. In the 10, Davis collected his third hit, stole second base, moved to third on Adam Lind's fly out, and scored on Ramon Troncoso's wild pitch with Arencibia batting. Munenori Kawasaki added a run-scoring double.
Adam Dunn, who had hit a solo homer in the second inning, grounded out with two runners aboard in the 10th as Casey Janssen recorded his 13 save. Brett Cecil (2-0) got the win.
Lind, being used regularly in the lineup, had three hits and is now hitting 11-for-22 against lefties.