Expected or not, Wang takes ace role

Expected or not, Wang takes ace role

NEW YORK -- Six months ago, it would be hard to have imagined anybody other than Randy Johnson or Mike Mussina getting the nod in Game 1 of the Yankees' postseason.

But when the first pitch is thrown at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, it will come out of the hand of Chien-Ming Wang, New York's unlikeliest of aces.

"I would never think that," Wang said. "I was surprised."

Surprised, but not nervous. At least Wang doesn't think he will be when he takes the mound.

"In the field, no; in here, yes," quipped Wang in front of a packed press gathering.

Even Joe Torre admitted that he wouldn't have envisioned such a scenario before the season.

"I don't think we could have ever dreamed that would be the case," Torre said. "The big part of it is his personality and confidence in himself."

Given that the team nixed Wang's involvement in the World Baseball Classic because of concerns over his right shoulder -- which caused him to miss two months in the second half of 2005 -- it was unthinkable that he would turn into the staff's workhorse.

But that's precisely what happened, as Wang led the Yankees in innings pitched (218) and wins in just his second season. With a 19-6 record and 3.63 ERA, Wang posted the best season of any Yankees starter, earning his Game 1 assignment.

"We always thought he had great stuff -- it was just a matter of having a little better command of the strike zone and not putting himself in tough counts," Mussina said. "He's been able to do that. He does what he needs to do to win ballgames."

Wang, one of only two pitchers in the Majors to record 19 victories this season, will be making his second career postseason start on Tuesday. The Yankees went 22-11 in his 33 starts this season, giving his teammates tremendous confidence in him when he takes the hill.

"He's been our savior," said catcher Jorge Posada. "He's stayed consistent, he's stayed healthy, and for me, he's the Cy Young Award winner."

Wang may not finish at the top of the Cy Young vote, as Minnesota's Johan Santana will likely take home the award for the second time in his career. But Wang and his teammates aren't concerned with individual awards as much as winning the World Series.

"We've leaned on him all year, and he's come up big for us," Derek Jeter said. "We just want him to continue what he's been doing, not try to change anything. If he can do that, I like our chances with him on the mound."

Starting Wang in Game 1 makes perfect sense, given his 11-3 record and 3.03 ERA at Yankee Stadium this season. Should the series go the distance, Wang would also be lined up to pitch Game 5 in the Bronx on Sunday.

Of course, he also went 4-0 with a 2.22 ERA in four starts in domed stadiums, so there wasn't a bad spot in which to line up the right-hander. His only outing against the Twins in 2006 came at the Metrodome on April 16, when he held Minnesota to one earned run over seven innings to earn his first victory of the season.

When pitching coach Ron Guidry informed Wang last week that he would be starting the postseason opener, the 26-year-old right-hander took the news as though Guidry had just told him that he would be throwing a bullpen in an hour.

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"Gator told him, and he sort of shrugged his shoulders," Torre said. "I'm sure there will be some butterflies on Tuesday when they start introducing people, but this kid really doesn't let you know how he's feeling. He's certainly behaved well on the field."

Posada estimates that 85 percent of Wang's pitches are sinkers, which Kevin Millar described as "bowling balls" last month. He has pitched at least six innings in 24 of his 33 starts this season, giving the Yankees length in several situations in which the bullpen had been overworked.

Wang's ability to brush pressure aside might be his greatest strength when it comes to this type of assignment. Although his command of the English language has improved during his two years in New York, Wang still doesn't speak it fluently. Because of that, he isn't put under the same media spotlight that his teammates are, allowing him to approach a start of this magnitude like any other outing.

"The way he goes about his business, he knows what he's got to do to be successful," Posada said. "He doesn't get caught up in anything. Every time he goes out there, he's prepared for the job at hand."

"The hype of the first game is what you have to get through, and I don't think it's going to bother him," Mussina said. "I assume he's just going to go out and pitch like he has all year."

Wang will also be able to lean on his experience from last October, when he pitched Game 2 of the Division Series in Anaheim against the Angels. Wang took the loss, allowing four runs -- only one of which was earned -- over 6 2/3 innings.

"I might get a little bit nervous," Wang said. "Last year will help me this year. I'm very excited."

Of course, as Torre likes to point out, how could anyone tell if Wang actually was nervous? The stone-faced pitcher looks the same while he's throwing a shutout as he does when he's getting cuffed around -- though the latter hasn't happened many times this season.

"He's had such a good year and been so consistent doing what he does," Mussina said. "He deserves to pitch the first game whether he's in his second year or his 10th year."

"He's our No. 1," Posada said. "He's the guy we want to follow."

Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.