Wells doesn't fail to rise to occasion
This is precisely what they brought him here to do.
When the Red Sox signed David Wells as a free agent last Dec. 14, he was 41 years old, with a personal odometer that easily surpassed 200,000 miles. He was plagued with enough questions that one of his biggest admirers, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, decided to pass on him.
''I wanted to go back to New York, yes," Wells conceded last night. ''But they had other plans. That's fine."
The Red Sox had some plans of their own for Wells. They were banking on him to recoup some of the wins they were relinquishing by allowing Pedro Martinez to walk as a free agent. And, more significantly, they were counting on him to become a big-game pitcher when the season was on the line.
Last night, in the most critical outing of the season (note to readers: They all fit that description the rest of the way), Wells gave up just three runs on six hits in seven innings against his former club, the Yankees, laying the groundwork for a 5-3 Sox victory and a dead heat between these familiar, old rivals.
His performance further cemented his reputation as a prime-time performer who thrives on pressure instead of wilting because of it.
''I'm not afraid to fail," Wells explained. ''If you have that in the back of your mind, you are probably gonna."
''The stage isn't too big for him," lauded manager Terry Francona. ''He enjoys competing under these circumstances, so you get to see his best, which is really good."
The irony of his success in Boston has been his ability to master the quirks of Fenway Park. Before he pulled a Sox jersey over his bald pate, his career numbers here were a pedestrian 10-10 record with a 4.87 ERA. But, after putting the finishing touches on last night's performance, he finishes the regular season with an 8-1 record and a 3.07 ERA in this tiny bandbox he can finally call home with confidence.
''I've come to terms with Fenway," Wells said. ''I've been playing against these guys all these years and getting my [butt] whooped all those times. To finally have success here changes your tone a little bit."
Wells has long been identified as a pitcher who exhibits, above all, command. Heading into this season, his 1.92 walks-per-game average was tops among active lefthanders. He's submitted 247 career games in which he's allowed one walk or fewer.
Last night wasn't one of them. In fact, his first inning was so surprisingly uncharacteristic, it left a number of frown lines on Francona's already permanently furrowed brow. After punching out Derek Jeter to start the game, Wells walked Alex Rodriguez on six pitches, then ran Jason Giambi to a full count before he walked him, too. He then hit Gary Sheffield on the foot to load the bases, and was burned for his first run on a Hideki Matsui single to center field.
''I wasn't worried," catcher Jason Varitek reported. ''He was just missing by a little bit. The ball was coming out of his hand good. You don't want to give in and make lousy pitches."
''I thought some of the pitches to A-Rod were close," Wells said. ''But the last thing I need is to get into an argument with the umpire.
''So I walked two guys in a row. At that point you have to battle. You've got to make good pitches. I had my curve working, and I just tried to get some fly balls. It could have gotten out of hand right out of the chute."
Instead, Wells struck out Jorge Posada and coaxed designated hitter Ruben Sierra into a fly ball to right field.
From there, he retired 12 of the next 13 batters.
His record is now 15-7, which, for the record, is one just one win shy of what Pedro gave the Red Sox last year, and matches the number of wins Martinez rang up for the Mets this season. Even so, Wells has experienced his share of struggles in a Sox uniform. There was the Opening Day loss to the Yankees in New York when he was gone after just 4 1/3 innings, the stinker in Oakland May 18 when he gave up seven runs and was pulled in the second inning, and the worrisome loss to Tampa Bay Sept. 19 when he was tagged for four runs and 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings.
''I'm sure there a lot of people who doubted this game," Wells said, ''but when you get an opportunity to pitch this type of game, you gotta love it. You've got to want to go out and just take the reins and run with it."
Wells dressed alongside too many of the Yankees players for too long not to pay homage to their dangerous lineup. He knows how one mistake can kill you, because he was often the beneficiary of their potent offense during his two stints (1997-98 and 2002-03) in the Bronx.
His biggest error last night came in the seventh, when he left the ball over the plate for Jeter, who promptly cranked a two-run homer. That cut a 5-1 Sox lead in half, but Wells put an end to it there. He caught MVP candidate Rodriguez looking for his fifth punch out of the night, then induced Giambi into a grounder to first base.
Francona opted to go to the bullpen in the eighth, what with Wells having thrown 101 pitches, and his cranky knee undoubtedly protesting a full night's work. Boomer says his arm is fine but admits the rest of his body is perpetually day to day. Of course, this is no time to sit, and a big-game guy like Wells wouldn't dream of it anyway.
He was asked last night what he imagined Steinbrenner was saying as he watched his former lefty take down his Yankees.
''That son of a [bleep]," Wells said. ''George and I have a history. I think he's a great man. We've had our ups and downs, but he likes warriors."
The warrior is wearing the uniform for the other guys now. The Red Sox paid him to deliver on a cool September night against his former friends. Consider it done.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.