The 2006 edition of Red Sox Nation’s adoration was welcomed back yesterday, the Fenway fans cheering wildly at the home opener upon the announcements of names Jason Varitek, Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Jonathan Papelbon, as a sun-splashed sky retreated into overcast.
They cheered Keith Foulke, the subject of so many jeers a year ago. They were indifferent about seeing Rudy Seanez again, but didn’t see fit to boo him just yet. They saluted Johnny Pesky and Terry Francona. They refused to sit down when David Ortiz emerged from the first base dugout.
In fact, there was just one player introduced during yesterday’s pregame ceremony that elicited an audible negative smattering from the sellout crowd: David Wells, the man who requested a trade during the offseason, put off by the obsessive nature of New England baseball fans and the boozies who can’t seem to let him alone enough to enjoy a meal downtown or a drink of his own.
A distraction, an eruption at any given moment, Wells is these things. And despite what some might take as gospel in the contrary, he is also still a pretty darned good pitcher.
Wells gets the ball tonight in his first start of the season, taking on the Toronto Blue Jays, with one distinct instruction from Red Sox Nation: Don’t screw it up.
It doesn’t take a sabermetrician to see that Red Sox starting pitching has been scary good to start the season. Starters have allowed 17 earned runs to cross the plate this season, and that number includes the seven scored against Tim Wakefield in Game 2, and the four Matt Clement coughed up in the seventh inning Friday night at Baltimore. Josh Beckett has given up two earned in 14 innings; Schilling three over the same time frame.
And then, along comes Wells.
The lefty is coming off an ugly “rehab” start Friday night in his bid to come off the disabled list, allowing seven earned runs over five innings at Pawtucket. “It is what it is, it’s a bad night,” Wells said. “No excuses.”
A repeat performance like that tonight will clearly magnify the boo-birds, many of whom assumed he’d be gone by now to San Diego or Los Angeles. But Theo Epstein refused to give up a 15-game winner for a spare part, deciding not to honor Wells’s trade request in the offseason. Still, the assumption is that Wells doesn’t want to be here, even if he is supposedly on board all of a sudden.
There’s got to be a weak link, right? No pitching staff can keep this going, whether it be April or September.
But Wells, even at 42 years old, has shown no real distinct signs of slowing down just yet. He’s failed to post double digit wins in just one of the past 10 seasons (2001 with Chicago, when he won five in an injury-shortened season) and is coming off his second 15-win season in the past three years. He’s made at least 30 starts in all but that 2001 season for the past decade, a sign of his durability at even such an advanced age.
When you get down to it, there were plenty of reasons not to trade Wells. If this is all a ruse, and he is indeed on the trading block still, then his pitching well could up the demand for his services, and give the Red Sox wins along the way. If he’s honest about wanting to play out the year in Boston, can you argue with a potential 15 wins from a pitcher who is right now your No. 5 starter? On the flip side, he could be a disaster, but based on his resume, that’s a lot less likely. There are a handful of teams on which a 42-year-old geezer like Wells would be the ace of the staff. Why deal a commodity like that before the season when you, yourself, are unaware of the holes your ballclub is bound to show as the games pass along?
Wells started last season with a pair of ugly starts against New York and Toronto in which he allowed 10 earned runs over 10 2/3 innings. He rebounded by winning his next two starts in dominant fashion. There were hiccups along the way, and when Wells lost in 2005 it was, for the most part, decidedly. Perhaps that is what might be so unnerving about watching him, knowing his age, wondering if this could be the night it all comes together, or it’s going to be one of the long ones.
Red Sox Nation demonstrated yesterday that it’s not going to be patient if tonight is one of the latter. It can be debated whether David Wells is pitching for his ticket out of town or the ballclub itself. Either way, Wells makes his debut tonight in front of a ready-to-pounce packed house at Fenway.