BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CLEVELAND -- David Wells was just trying to be helpful. With the New York Yankees remarkable season in a serious rut, the portly pitching ace approached his manager Saturday about taking his turn ahead of schedule.
With his team trailing the Cleveland Indians, two games to one, Wells reasoned Joe Torre might want to put his best man on the mound immediately. He thought Torre might want to tinker with his rotation for the American League Championship Series to give Wells a shot at a possible Game Seven.
He was wondering, essentially, whether Torre might want to shelve his best-laid plans and panic.
Torre appreciated Wells' volunteer spirit, but chose to stick with his status quo. He would send Orlando Hernandez out to face the Cleveland Indians, and live with the consequences. In his hour of need, Torre was determined to keep some of his pitching powder dry.
Playoff series sometimes swing on such decisions, and Torre's patience was richly rewarded Saturday night. Orlando Hernandez, the Cuban refugee renowned as "El Duque," pitched seven shutout innings in a 4-0 Yankee victory.
As a result, the ALCS is now tied at two games apiece, and Wells will pitch today on his regular rest. The Yankees are assured that the playoff series will be settled in New York. The situation is still tenuous, but baseball's winningest team is back in business.
"This was the biggest game we've played all year," said Yankee outfielder Paul O'Neill. "We were playing for our lives tonight. But nothing affects him (Hernandez). It's been a neat story since he got here."
"Hernandez was spectacular tonight," Torre said. "I saw him at brunch today, and he asked me how I was feeling. I thought that was the first indication that he was feeling OK. He was very relaxed, very determined and a little reluctant to give me the ball when I went out in the eighth inning."
Hernandez may not have been the ideal candidate to pitch Saturday -- he had not started a game since Sept. 25, and is accustomed to working in warmer conditions -- but in other ways he was the perfect choice. Formerly the pitching ace of the Cuban national team, Hernandez knows pressures few of his peers can even imagine. Asked Friday to identify the biggest game he had ever pitched, he reminded reporters that his experience is quite extensive.
"The biggest game that I've pitched to this date," he said, through an interpreter, "is jumping on the boat and leaving Cuba."
On the day after Christmas, two months after his brother, Livan, was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series, Hernandez and seven comrades left Cuba on a small boat. They were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard three days after landing on the Caribbean island of Anguilla Cay.
On the advice of his agent, Joe Cubas, Hernandez declined the offer of an American visa and established residency in Costa Rica. This maneuver exempted him from the amateur draft, entitled him to free agency, and touched off a bidding war the Yankees ultimately won with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract.
He won 12 games for the Yankees during the regular season, including seven of his last eight decisions. Despite his long playoff layoff, Hernandez was as sharp as he had been all season.
"I had pressure," he said, "but I had no fear. I've had may difficult times in my life and I knew I would be able to handle it."
Hernandez' most anxious moment Saturday came in the first inning, when Jim Thome narrowly missed a three-run homer on a fly ball to the warning track. After that, it was a relative breeze.
Hernandez held Cleveland to three hits in his seven innings, striking out six. Manny Ramirez and Thome -- Cleveland's primary sources of power -- struck out back-to-back in both the fourth and sixth innings.
"After everything he's been through, a playoff game is like a walk in the park," Torre said. "But it was big for us."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at email@example.com.