Fans' taunts fuel Wells' fire

Monday, October 12, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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David Wells tip his hat to jeering Indians fans
(AP{ photo)

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CLEVELAND -- David Wells had heard enough. He was trying to warm up, and succeeding mainly in getting steamed.

Some hecklers above the right-field bullpen had hit a nerve, and now they were hammering it. Wells could not tune them out, and he could not concentrate. The abuse was too personal, too pointed, too painful. Beneath all his blubber and biker macho, the New York Yankees' loopy left-hander is as sensitive as a paper cut.

"I don't care what they say about me," Wells said Sunday night at Jacobs Field. "That's fine. I can deal with a lot of negative crap out there. But when it involves my mom or any one of my family members, it really bothers me. So to those idiots out there, this one's for you."

What at first made him fume Wells later converted to fuel. He beat the Cleveland Indians for the second time in the American League Championship Series, this time 5-3, and sent the Yankees home for the remaining games of the best-of-seven World Series semifinal with a 3-2 lead.

He got mad, and then he got even.

When he first took the mound for Sunday's Game 5, Wells' mind was not entirely on his work. The Yankees had presented him with three runs in the top of the first inning, and he seemed determined to squander the lead. He was thinking of his late mother, and the callous clowns who had insulted her memory in search of a psychological edge. (Yankees fans are notorious for their boorish behavior, but lowlifes exist everywhere.)

"That's what really just kind of got me out of focus," Wells said. "And it took a while (to settle down). I was out there fighting myself and (finally) I said, "I've got a job to do.' "

Kenny Lofton led off the Cleveland first with a home run that fell in the narrow row of seats between the right-field foul pole and the Yankees bullpen. Then Wells gave up two more hits before he recorded his first out.

But once his focus was restored and his curve ball began to cooperate, the heavy-metal moundsman was again a dominant force in a desperate fight. Wells struck out 11 Indians before Joe Torre beckoned to his bullpen in the bottom of the eighth inning -- 10 of them on swinging third strikes -- and reinforced his reputation as a Big-Game Pitcher.

Wells grabbed the nation's attention with the perfect game he pitched against Minnesota in May. But he has been no less impressive under postseason pressure. He has won all three of his playoff starts while holding opposing hitters to a .202 average. He has struck out 27 batters in 23 2/3 innings.

"I'm probably prouder of his effort tonight," Torre said, "than maybe the shutouts and even the perfect game, for that matter -- because of when it happened and what it meant to us and he didn't panic . . . He's an animal. He goes at you."

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Wells pitched so pugnaciously Sunday that Torre took his greatest risk in replacing him. Wells struck out Omar Vizquel to open the eighth inning -- his third straight strikeout, and this one on three pitches -- when Torre sprang from the dugout signaling for the bullpen.

"He (Wells) had some left, but some left when you go through the middle of that lineup is really tough," Torre said. "So that was pretty much our plan. For a while, I wasn't sure it was a good plan, the way it developed."

Torre chose the 6-foot-8 Jeff Nelson to face Cleveland's big right-handed bats, and the order proved taller than the pitcher. Nelson threw two balls to Travis Fryman, and then hit him with his third pitch. Wells, watching the inning start to unravel on the bench, grabbed his glove and stormed toward the clubhouse.

Nelson then threw two more balls to Manny Ramirez, before Ramirez lined a single to left field. When Mariano Rivera was called on to calm things down, it was with the go-ahead run at the plate. Mark Whiten, who had struck out three times against Wells, grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Once Wells had the win, he removed his Yankees cap and replaced it with one promoting Van Halen. When he returned to the clubhouse from his post-game press conference, he found Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in the middle of a long monologue about him.

"I'm not sure how many Christmas dinners he's coming over to the house for," Steinbrenner said, "but we'll go to hockey games like we did last year. I'm even starting to like that Metallic band."

"Metallic-a," Wells shouted.

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

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