'Boomer' back to winning big games

Originally Published: September 30, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- If everything in life comes down to Yankees-Red Sox, how could the last weekend of yet one more crazy season not end like this:

With one more apocalyptic series, a whole season hanging on the outcome -- and the ball in David Wells' left hand.

David Wells
David Wells struggled in the first inning, but found his rhythm over the next six innings.
It isn't true that Wells has been pitching in Yankees-Red Sox games since the days of Bucky Dent and Mike Torrez. But it seems like it sometimes. Even to him.

He admitted Friday night he has been playing Yankees-Red Sox games in his head since he was a kid playing Wiffle Ball, pretending he was Reggie Jackson, stirring the Yankees' imaginary drink.

So those of us who only chronicle these events would like to thank whoever was responsible for arranging the earth to spin just enough to push Wells out to the mound at Fenway on Friday to pitch the opener of the latest, greatest Yankees-Red Sox extravaganza.

Not that these games ever lack for plot lines. But you can't beat this one.

"Those are the kinds of scripts," laughed Mike Stanton, Wells' once and present teammate on both of these teams, "that you just can't write."

In a couple of days, it will be exactly six months to the day since Wells got creamed in Yankee Stadium on opening night, in his Red Sox debut. But on Friday, he was back to being The Other Boomer.

Firing those curve balls for strikes, one after another after another. Wriggling his way out of trouble. And, of course, winning The Big Game.

"This is how you make a name for yourself," Wells said, after pitching seven Boomer-esque innings in a 5-3 Red Sox win that hauled his new team back into a first-place tie with his former employers. "This is how you get a reputation as a big-game pitcher, when you go out and pitch games like this and be successful."

He is 42 years and 4 months old now. And from afar, he looks more like a beer vendor than a 227-game winner who still has enough left to go 15-7 this year.

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So when the Red Sox signed him to a two-year contract last winter (for $8.15 million guaranteed, with a chance to make another $10 million in incentives), there were people running around New England wondering if they'd all drunk a little too much World Series champagne.

"But you know what?" said manager Terry Francona. "We didn't bring him in here to run the marathon. We just need him to get outs -- and he's done a really good job with that."

And Friday, when his team needed him most -- the way it needed Big Papi's Walkoffs and The Man With the Bloody Sock and Dave Roberts' Steal That Changed The World last October -- David Wells added one more chapter to his Yankee-Red Sox legend.

"This," Wells said, "was a huge game. If we lose tonight, let's face it. It wasn't going to look too good."

But David Wells wouldn't let them lose. Not that you ever would have expected that five batters into his night's work, though.

After walking just 19 hitters all season, he walked two of the first three he faced in this game. And then hit the next one (Gary Sheffield) to load the bases.

"It could have gotten out of hand there right out of the chute," Wells would say, many hours later.

But Wells suddenly found the feel for his breaking ball again, limited the damage to one run and then morphed right back into the strike-throwing machine he always is.

He threw nine balls in his first 17 pitches. He then threw nine more in his next 50 pitches.

He was down a run after the first five hitters he faced. He then chewed through 16 of the next 17 Yankees who came to the plate.

And by the time he called it an evening after seven innings, his team had ridden this game's regularly scheduled David Ortiz game-tying RBI, Jason Varitek's first Fenway homer since Aug. 12 and a sixth-inning Yankees self-destruction to a 5-3 lead.

There's nothing better than standing on this stage. That's what makes these rivalries what they are. Every game's a big game. Every game has so much pressure attached. But I love that moment. I love that stage. I'm not afraid to fail. And when you can succeed in these kinds of games, that's when you find out who can play on this stage and who can't.
David Wells

Three Red Sox relievers then finished the job, culminating with a four-out, three-punchout save from Mike Timlin. And the roar of the Fenway throng didn't fade until three scoreboard workers marched out to the left-field corner with a step ladder and rearranged the standings on The Wall, dropping "New York" one line and carefully placing "Boston" on the top rung.

But there could have been no roar had there been no Boomer, relishing his role in the latest chapter of the greatest rivalry in sports.

Back when Wells was a Yankee, he beat the Red Sox six times in the regular season and once more in the 2003 ALCS. But now he's on the other side of this real-life soap opera. And since his gruesome debut, he has three wins over his old pals, the Yankees, in four starts.

He has seen Sawx-Yankees from both sides now. And he has discovered the view is just as scenic from the north side of the forest as it is from the south.

"This rivalry sucks you in," Wells said. "There's nothing better than standing on this stage. That's what makes these rivalries what they are. Every game's a big game. Every game has so much pressure attached. But I love that moment. I love that stage. I'm not afraid to fail. And when you can succeed in these kinds of games, that's when you find out who can play on this stage and who can't."

The funny thing is, his role in this game would have looked a lot different Friday if it had been up to him. If his place of employment had been all his call last winter, Wells freely admits he would have been pitching this game for the Yankees, not the Red Sox.

But the Yankees "had other plans," he said. And just the other day, he claimed Joe Torre had personally vetoed his return.

Torre gave that charge a terse "no comment" on Friday. But when asked what made Wells so special in games of this magnitude, even Torre felt compelled to give the Boomer his due -- placing him alongside Ortiz as one of the men who can rise up when the moment demands it. And then Torre tossed out yet one more name in that group.

"That's why everyone is always afraid of Tiger Woods," Torre said, "because those are guys who have done it. And the game seems to slow down for those guys."

So now here is the Boomer, 19 seasons into his career, still slowing it down and still doing it when he has to. It's no accident he's 10-3 lifetime in the postseason. And while this might not have been a postseason game in the technical definition of the word, it was a playoff game in every other sense.

Saturday afternoon, the men on this stage will be Randy Johnson and Tim Wakefield, with the AL East in a 160-game dead heat. But we couldn't have had that kind of drama Saturday if David Wells hadn't played his part so brilliantly Friday. So when someone asked him what his old pal, Boss Steinbrenner, must have been thinking as he watched all that unfold, Wells couldn't help but laugh.

"Probably," chuckled David Wells, "he was thinking, 'That son of a (bleep).' "

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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