Wang will start Opening Day for Yanks
Right-hander coming off back-to-back 19-win seasons
TAMPA, Fla. -- One year ago, Chien-Ming Wang got his hopes up to pitch on Opening Day before suffering both an injury and ultimate disappointment, forced to watch from a Tampa apartment as his team went north without him.
Barring a catastrophe in Wang's final start of Spring Training, he will finally get to find out what a season opener feels like. Yankees manager Joe Girardi confirmed Friday that Wang has been tabbed as the Opening Day starter, set to face the Blue Jays on March 31 in New York.
"He's earned it," Girardi said. "He's won 19 games the last couple of years and he's thrown the ball well the last couple of years. I'm comfortable starting him Opening Day."
The start will come on Wang's 28th birthday, one year after a strained right hamstring cost him most of April before he rebounded to tie a career high in wins for the second consecutive season, going 19-7 with a 3.70 ERA in 30 starts and establishing a career high with 104 strikeouts.
"I'm very happy," Wang said. "This is my first time on Opening Day. For me, it's big. I'm very excited.
"It shows that the coaches trust me. I still have a lot to learn."
Wang said that he planned to call his mother in Taiwan to relay the news. It was quite a turn of events, as 10 days away from a packed house at Yankee Stadium -- New York's final Opening Day in the current facility -- Wang spent Friday afternoon on a sun-splashed Minor League field, working to the Rays' Class A Vero Beach lineup in front of about 100 witnesses.
Throwing 89 pitches -- 60 for strikes -- before being lifted with two outs in the sixth inning, Wang mixed in his splitter, changeup and slider more often. He finished allowing five runs (four earned) on six hits, walking one and striking out three, but most of the damage came in the sixth inning.
Wang had used an economical 66 pitches through five innings before the Rays' prospects got him to labor. Working under a sunny, cloudless sky, Wang admitted he got a "little bit" tired in that frame, but "not much," and said that his pitches were up and flat in the sixth.
"Those kids swing at everything -- high, low, inside, outside," Wang said.
Wang was not the only Yankee to get work in over at the Himes Ave. facility on Friday. Jorge Posada caught Wang's start and went 1-for-2 with a walk (three Rays stole successfully on the battery of Wang and Posada), while non-roster infielder Chris Woodward went 0-for-2 with two walks.
But, with Girardi, pitching coach Dave Eiland and general manager Brian Cashman all in attendance, it was Wang who seemed to have the best reception. After Wang completed his work, he slung a towel over his right shoulder and accepted congratulations from the Yankees' Minor Leaguers on his team for the day.
Girardi said that it was good for the possible future Yankees to see how a few seasoned professionals go about their business, up close and personal.
"I think it makes them human, that they're there and they're doing their work the same way those kids are," Girardi said. "Sometimes, when you aspire to get somewhere or you look up to someone, if you don't see them in the flesh doing exactly what you're doing, they don't always seem human."
Wang hasn't had a whole lot of success this spring -- in four Grapefruit League starts, Wang is 2-1 with an 8.44 ERA in 10 2/3 innings.
But his track record speaks volumes: He has won more games than any other big league pitcher (38) over the last two years and leads the Majors with a .745 winning percentage in that time span, though he suffered two losses in the Yankees' first-round playoff exit against the Indians last October.
Wang has said that it took him a month to get over the playoff losses, in which he was roughed up for 12 runs and 14 hits in 5 2/3 innings. Pitching on three days' rest in the deciding Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium, Wang did not retire an Indians batter in the second inning.
"The two losses make me want to do even better this year," Wang said. "I want to make the coaches trust me even more in the future."
Girardi said that Wang's balanced and relaxed personality lends itself well to an assignment like Opening Day, and that he was glad Wang needed one month to get over his October disappointment.
"That tells me that he really cares and he wants to get better," Girardi said. "That actually excites me. I think he will continue to improve."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.