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ON BASEBALL

Southern comfort doesn't suit Wells

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Unlike Lou Piniella, who grabbed the chance to come home even if it added 10 years of worry lines to his visage, David Wells never contemplated pitching for the Devil Rays, even though he owns a $4 million home in the neighborhood (Safety Harbor) that he only recently put up for sale.

''I knew I didn't want to ride out my career with a team that flat-out [stinks]," Wells wrote in his literary opus ''Perfect I'm Not," which deserves a spot on a Sox fan's bookshelf alongside Johnny Damon's ''Idiot."

''Sorry Devil Rays," he added. ''It just wouldn't be worth it."

Wells's contempt for the Devil Rays is grounded in personal experience. They can't beat him. Only once in his 15 career starts has Tampa Bay saddled him with a loss (10-1, four no-decisions), including two wins and a no-decision in three starts this season and wins in nine straight decisions dating to 1999.

But after the Devil Rays gave Wells all he could handle last night, then came from behind to beat the Red Sox, 4-3, in 10 innings, becoming the first team this year to extend the Sox to extra innings after 98 games, a big league record to start the season, Wells said he's revised his opinion.

''This team is not as easy as everyone thinks they are," said Wells, who had a 3-2 lead after Johnny Damon's two-run home run in the top of the seventh, but put two runners on base in the bottom of the inning before Julio Lugo delivered the tying hit off Mike Timlin.

''They've got speed, they've got guys that can handle the bat, they've got a little bit of power," he said. ''Their season isn't going well, but they can beat you on any given night. The only thing it comes down to is pitching. If they had three or four quality starters like a lot of other teams have -- New York, us -- they could be right in the hunt. No question about it."

Tampa Bay is hardly rolling over for teams these days. They swept the Orioles on Wade Boggs Weekend here, which honored their Cooperstown-bound native son while rewarding one lucky fan with a hair restoration treatment (one of Boggs's product endorsements), and they've won eight of 11 games since the All-Star break, a record exceeded only by the high-flying Athletics (9-2) in that span.

Beasts of the East? Laugh if you will, but the Devil Rays have a better record against the AL East (20-22) than either the Red Sox (20-26) or Yankees (17-21), which is a certain irritant to another noted Tampa resident, George Steinbrenner.

The Devil Rays proved opportunists last night. They might do so more often, Wells said, if it wasn't for Piniella, thus joining Curt Schilling as the second Sox pitcher this season to take a shot at the manager. Schilling, you may recall, said Devil Rays players blamed the spate of beanball incidents between the teams on ''that idiot," referring to Piniella.

Wells didn't resort to name-calling, but he landed a pretty good shot.

''They've got a lot of young guys," Wells said. ''I think that a lot of those guys are petrified of Lou over there. Lou is a tough guy to get along with, from what I hear. I've never played for him, but I've seen what he does. I've seen him yell at a lot of guys and I talk to guys when they've left and been on other teams and they say it's really hard because he's tough on the young guys.

''I think Lou needs to chill out and give these guys opportunities instead of criticizing them. They've got some tremendous arms over there. They've got some live arms and they've got guys that can do it. But when you're under pressure like that all the time it's hard to pitch. They don't have any veteran starters over there.

''Everybody knows pitching is going to win a lot of ballgames -- they've always put some good guys on the field, but they haven't really gone out and gotten any quality starters. That's what's holding them back."

The Devil Rays can be especially aggravating when the opponents contribute to their own demise the way the Sox did last night. Wells said his biggest mistake was shaking off Jason Varitek -- ''the only time all night" -- then throwing ''a cookie" to Nick Green, who hit a single just before Lugo's base hit. Shortstop Edgar Renteria bobbled a routine play that led to a run in the fourth. In the seventh, Renteria ranged far to his left to make a potentially spectacular play on Toby Hall's ground ball, only to slap his head in dismay when Kevin Millar couldn't handle his bounced throw to first.

Pinch runner Adam Stern was caught in no-man's land on Renteria's first-and-third comebacker in the ninth and was run down by pitcher Jesus Colome after he realized he wasn't going to be able to turn two on the play. Trot Nixon couldn't dodge John Olerud's bid for a game-winning hit in the 10th, Nixon called out when the ball hit him in the leg en route to center field. And the game ended when Nixon's leap for Aubrey Huff's double off Schilling came up empty, allowing Jorge Cantu to score.

''We're not hitting on all cylinders," Wells said, when asked why the Sox aren't playing better. ''We've got the makeup and the ability to do it.

''I'll take this team over anybody's, any day. This is a great team, a lot of fun. I don't think one loss and we lose hope. Sure, we'll be ticked off, but tomorrow is another day."

Wells said he expects the Sox to make a move before Sunday's trade deadline. He smiled when someone mentioned the month-old rumor about the Padres wanting to get him back. ''I heard it," he said. ''I wouldn't have been disappointed. That's the only place I would go. That's home.

''But I'm glad I'm here because we have a chance to win again. I'd love to win a World Series with this ballclub. This is the best bunch of guys I've ever played with. I mean, the Yankees were unbelievable, but these guys are great, every day they're having fun.

''We're on our own. This is the first time I've been on a club where we're on our own. These guys can all play, for sure, but there's no animosity here. We're one big happy family."

Happiness, however, did not mean beating the Devil Rays.

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