Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ace or not, Yanks need Wang

With the game hanging in the balance yesterday, Chien-Ming Wang showed why he's been baseball's winningest pitcher the past three seasons and, at least for one night, showed the gumption of a true ace.

In a month of struggles, the right-hander had Yankees fans worrying about their No. 1 starter. Wang's sinker wasn't sinking, his control had deserted him. Was it a funk, or was there something physically wrong? His deficiencies following a red-hot April had become a primary reason behind New York's inability to paddle out of sight of the .500 mark.

And now here we were in Oakland, in the opening game of an important six-game road swing. Wang had put the leadoff man on in each of the first six innings, a Wilson Betemit misplay away from escaping each of those frames unscathed. But the seventh brought the greatest test. Bases loaded, one out, the A's just a single away from sticking the Yankees with a momentum-burying loss.

On this day, Wang would not be denied. With Kurt Suzuki at the plate, the right-hander reached back for that sinker that had turned on him in his last six starts and this time it rewarded him. Suzuki hit a sharp grounder to Alex Rodriguez at third, starting an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.

Quality relief from Veras and Rivera and a 3-1 victory was born. Yankees fans could breathe a sigh of relief. It turned out the Wanger didn't win his final game in pinstripes on May 2. You could hear the sound of rejoice from Taipei to da Bronx, to yes, Los Angeles.

It was a gutty performance by Wang, because he was again without his best stuff. When you put on the leadoff man in seven straight innings, it's typically a recipe for defeat. But Wang kept it together, and his ability to induce ground balls and double plays helps to make up for the fact that he'll never be a power strikeout guy. He's not a conventional ace by any means, but he certainly delivers similar results when that turbo sinker is going right.

With the Yanks rotation in flux this season, they need consistency from Wang more than ever. When your ace is on the mound, you should feel like you have a good chance to win even if your offense doesn't bring its best game to the table. That was certainly the case on Tuesday, as the mighty Bombers were flummoxed by the dynamic Dana Eveland. Wang bent but didn't break, a mentality this team needs from him more often in games where his best stuff isn't there.

It's impossible to understate how important Wang is to this team. Pitching at the top of a rotation buried in question marks, the Yankees need him to win 18-21 games while tossing 210-plus innings in the process. Sure, it's asking a lot of any pitcher, but he is our ace, right?

Well, he's our ace now anyway. At this point, whether or not he's a true No. 1 is inconsequential. They just need wins, and lots of them. Yesterday was a good start.

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