Wei-Yen Chen is exceeding Don Mattingly’s expectations, and not with how he’s been pitching.
That part, Mattingly said, has been just “okay.”
But the simple fact that Chen is pitching at all is the surprise.
Chen will be on the mound Saturday for what will be his sixth start, one more than he made all last season, and far sooner than Mattingly would ever have imagined back in spring training.
At the time, Mattingly said, his expectations for the oft-injured Chen returning before the All-Star break in July weren’t exactly high.
“I’d say very low,” Mattingly said.
And for good reason.
Chen hasn’t exactly been a model of durability ever since the Marlins gave him a $80 million contract to serve as their No. 2 starter behind Jose Fernandez.
Plagued by arm issues, Chen made only 27 starts his first two years.
The problem became so pronounced last season that even Chen wondered about his future, and whether he would ever pitch again.
“Yes, that thought entered my mind from time to time last year,” Chen said through his interpreter.
Even when Chen has pitched, the results haven’t been great, certainly not to the level the Marlins imagined when they handed him his big deal.
Chen went 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA his first year of the contract in 2016.
“When I got here, I was too eager to do all the things they wanted me to do,” Chen said. “I kind of tried to be too perfect, tried to do more than I could handle.”
Chen said it was Fernandez who helped them him through the disappointment.
“Jose, he comforted me all the time, talked to me,” Chen said.
But after Fernandez died at the end of the 2016 season, there was nobody there to comfort Chen last season when he struggled. And few thought Chen, what with his chronic arm problems, could help them this season, at least early on.
“We were really thinking after the break,” Mattingly said. “But he had a flawless spring training. His bullpens were good right away. He never missed any time. You never heard anything about him being sore. There hasn’t been one report where he’s been sore.”
Chen missed the first month as he strengthened his arm and hasn’t missed a start since.
The results have been a mixed bag.
Three of the five turned out well. But his outings in Cincinnati and Chicago were disasters, ones in which he gave up 13 runs -- including five home runs -- in only seven innings.
Mattingly has handled him carefully. He pulled him in the fifth inning of his May 15 start against the Dodgers even though Chen had not allowed a run and only three hits.
“It’s taken a little bit of time for me to see when the air comes out of the balloon with him,” Mattingly said. “There’s a time in the game where you can always see it. It seems like the air comes out. and when it comes out, it comes out quick.”
Chen was in position to earn the win in his most recent start after allowing two runs to the Braves over 5 1/3 innings. But the Marlins blew a five-run lead in the ninth before losing, and Chen didn’t receive a decision.
“Physically I’ve been feeling fine,” Chen said. “Now I’m happy.”