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ON BASEBALL

A great time to come up big

According to one baseball official who knows David Wells well, ``He loves being the guy who saves the day. He wants to be known as the guy the team depends on. He feeds off of that."

Call it a little self-indulgent or narcissistic. The Red Sox don't care what you call it as long as he can indeed take the bows after a sterling performance, save the bullpen, and stop the bleeding of a team that desperately needs their 43-year-old lefthander to be front and center for one more stretch run.

His attempt to save the day last night was noble, touch and go, and gutsy. By the time he left the game to a standing ovation, leading, 5-4, after 6 2/3 innings with Craig Monroe on first base, Wells, who allowed 10 hits and one walk, had done his job.

He wasn't the savior, but close to it. The Sox, who went on to beat the Tigers, 6-4, will take it.

``The magnitude of any game isn't too big for him and he just goes out and competes and throws what he throws for strikes," said Sox manager Terry Francona.

``When he's healthy enough to do it, he's pretty good. He's done such a good job coming back. He didn't have to come back. He could have gone home and everyone would have understood. I'm proud of him."

Remembering when he used to face Wells, teammate Mark Loretta said, ``David was such a competitor. He was always around the plate. You never knew what to expect. The thing is he never gives in. It's exactly what we needed right now."

Wells left after Coco Crisp's two-run double in the sixth enabled Boston to retake the lead. Wells allowed a pair of homers in the sixth -- a solo shot to Magglio Ordonez and a two-run homer to Brent Clevlen, who smacked an 87-mile-per-hour fastball over everything in left with Brandon Inge aboard to put the Tigers ahead, 4-3.

There were many who believed that in trading Bronson Arroyo, a pitcher in his prime, the Sox would have to rely on an overweight pitcher who has endured a few physical issues the past two seasons.

And their fears were realized. Wells had not fully recovered from offseason knee surgery. Injections of lubricant in the joint worked OK, but not great. Wells had more stints on the disabled list (3) than starts (2) when he went down May 26 after being struck off the knee by a liner from Tampa Bay's Travis Lee, on a night when he had allowed just one run and five hits in 4 1/3 innings in his return from the DL.

Most fans, media, and even teammates didn't think Wells had another comeback in him, but he's surprised a lot of people.

After being hammered for eight runs in the first start of his latest comeback, a July 31 no-decision in a 9-8 Red Sox win over Cleveland, Wells allowed five runs in six innings Aug. 5 against Tampa Bay. Because the Sox and Wells had decided a minor league rehab start was not worthwhile, Wells knocked the rust out in those starts before pitching a gem in a 9-1 win over the Orioles last weekend.

There was hope again that Wells had something left. When games started by Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling resulted in losses in the first two games of this series, it left the task up to Wells to save the day before a five-game series against the Yankees, which begins tomorrow with a day-night doubleheader.

Wells's job was to a.) win; b.) give the bullpen a rest; and c.) establish himself again as Boston's No. 3 starter, one the Sox could depend on the rest of the way.

And the assignment was tough because Wells throws strikes and the Tigers are free-swingers. Carlos Guillen came in hitting .417 (5 for 12) against Wells, Omar Infante .333 (2 for 6), Ordonez .333 (8 for 24), Ivan Rodriguez .333 (19 for 57, with four home runs and 10 RBIs), Dmitri Young (who did not start last night) .455 (5 for 11), and Inge .421 (8 for 19).

Yet the big fella started well. He walked Rodriguez to start the game, then picked him off first base. He allowed a single to center to Monroe, but retired the next two batters to exit the inning unharmed.

The Tigers went down 1-2-3 in the second. In the third, Wells allowed a one-out Wall double to Infante, and after Rodriguez singled him to third, Monroe singled to center for the Tigers' first run.

Wells has always kept the game plan simple, but he is crafty, something not lost on another one of the all-time great Red Sox characters. ``Wells is the best pitcher on the team," said Oil Can Boyd recently. ``There might be guys with better stuff and throw harder and all that, but when it comes to pure pitching, I admire what he does. He knows how to set up the hitters. He pitches in spots. He's got that mental picture of every hitter and what he has to do to get that man out. That's the way I pitched.

``I don't care if you throw it 100 miles an hour, if you don't have any idea what you're doing with it, forget it.

``You don't hang around as long as David Wells has and win over 200 games and not have an idea. They get him back pitching like he has, they got one great money pitcher right there."

Down, 1-0, should never be an issue at Fenway for the Sox, except that phenom Justin Verlander was gunning for his 15th win. It was 1-1 in the fifth when David Ortiz stroked a two-run homer to give Wells the lead.

It was interesting to see the difference between Wells and the 23-year-old Verlander. One was throwing strikes, the other was wild, and after Ortiz's homer, he threw a couple of pitches near Manny Ramírez. Tigers manager Jim Leyland yelled at his youngster to calm down. Which he did.

It wasn't that Wells got tight after that. In fact, he was as loose as ever. He was still spotting his fastball, and keeping hitters off-balance with his sweeping curve.

He was trying to expand Bruce Froemming's strike zone with every fastball on the outside corner. But when Wells missed, he missed with a mid-80s fastball, and hitters, even the Brent Clevlens of the world, can spot a gift when they see it.

When Wells left the mound, he realized there aren't many ovations left for him. He waved his glove and disappeared into the dugout, knowing he very well may have saved the day.

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