Wells sets (loud) tone for Yankees

Wednesday, October 7, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

David Wells enjoyed his victory Tuesday night.
(AP photo)

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NEW YORK -- David Cone, today's starting pitcher for New York, appeared for his press conference with a simple set of ground rules.

"Could you please speak up a little bit?" he said Tuesday evening. "My ears are ringing from Metallica playing in my head."

When the decibel count in the Yankees' clubhouse approaches chainsaw level, it usually means it's David Wells' turn on the mound. Baseball tradition is that the starting pitchers pick the pregame tunes, and Wells' tastes tend toward headache-inducing heavy metal.

His pitching, however, increasingly evokes the sounds of silence. Wells made his second start of the postseason Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, and again nursed a shutout into the ninth inning. The Yankees clobbered Cleveland 7-2 in the first game of the American League Championship Series.

"He was absolutely outstanding," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said of Wells. "I don't know if David missed a spot until the ninth. He kept the ball down, moved it around, and changed speeds. He showed the difference between a good veteran pitcher and a good kid pitcher."

The vet was all right

The kid was Jaret Wright, who last year beat the Yankees twice in the playoffs, but Tuesday was able to get only two outs. The Yankees scored five times in the first inning, and Wells made this lead look as large as the Empire State Building.

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Wells can be awful hard on the ears, but he's become a sight for sore eyes; an acknowledged pitching ace after a lengthy career as a joker. At the age of 35, with his fifth major-league team, the biker wanna-be has reached a maturity level long thought unattainable. Once mainly an arm, he has become an artist, author of a perfect game and the ranking money pitcher on the best team in baseball.

He has brought in da noise, and left out da funk.

"We saw a different David Wells this year," Cone said. "He battled the whole year long. He never gave in and he really worked on his craft. I think he is a much more cerebral pitcher, if that is possible to say about David Wells."

Including the regular season, Tuesday's triumph was Wells' 20th victory of 1998, this against only four defeats. The Yankees' first-inning outburst made it a relatively low-pressure performance, yet Wells pitched as if trying to preserve a one-run lead. He struck out three of the five hitters he faced with runners in scoring position, and did not allow an Indian to reach third base until Manny Ramirez' two-run homer in the ninth inning.

"He's the one you want to be pitching with a lead," Yankee manager Joe Torre said of Wells, "because he's going to throw strikes. . .he makes you hit the ball. That's a manager's dream."

Wells walked only 29 hitters in 214 1/3 innings this season, and struck out 163. This is the kind of ratio normally associated with Greg Maddux, and the closest thing to a constant in Wells' career.

In previous years, Wells' temperament often intruded on his talent. He would lose his control, and his composure would follow.

He can still be contrary and stubborn, but he has learned to turn these traits to his advantage. If he is not quite cerebral, David Wells has at least ceased to be dumb.

"I think he really turned up his intensity level (this year)," Cone said. "He is also a much more refined pitcher in my mind. . .He has mixed his pitches much better, come up with a cut fastball, is throwing his changeup much more often. His whole repertoire, to me, has gotten better."

Tuesday, Wells' stuff was extraordinary. He struck out seven while walking only one before requiring the relief help of Jeff Nelson. He did what all Game One starters seek to do -- establish a sense of superiority that takes pressure off the other pitchers.

"I was geared tonight," Wells said. "I really wanted it because it's a situation where if we win a first game, it can set a tone."

The Yankees are comfortable with the tone Wells sets. They only complain when he sets the volume.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com