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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS / AMERICAN LEAGUE

All's Wells for Yankees in Opener

Game 1: New York left-hander throws eight shutout innings, beating Rangers' Stottlemyre, 2-0.

September 30, 1998|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — He's a frumpy left-hander who's as flaky as a breakfast cereal, sports more tattoos than a Hells Angel and, not too long ago, would lose his composure on the mound like a cranky toddler who lost his pacifier.

But for all of David Wells' idiosyncrasies--this guy nearly came to blows with George Steinbrenner and is a self-proclaimed "headbanger" who loves Van Halen, AC/DC and Metallica--he is one of baseball's best big-game pitchers.

Wells thrived under playoff pressure again Tuesday night, throwing eight shutout innings to lead the New York Yankees to 2-0 victory over the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the American League division series before a pumped-up crowd of 57,362 in Yankee Stadium.

The 35-year-old connoisseur of Yankee history, particularly all things Babe Ruth, has added his own 1998 chapter to Yankee lore, throwing a perfect game against the Twins on May 17 and improving to 5-0 with a 2.06 earned-run average in the postseason Tuesday night.

"This is crunch time, I love this stuff," said Wells, who gave up five hits, walked one and struck out nine to outduel Ranger right-hander Todd Stottlemyre. "I want to be the hero or the goat, the guy they blame if we get our butts kicked and the guy who gets the pat on the back if we do well. I want that ball, and if I don't get my way I get ticked off."

Wells had his usual sharp fastball, which he pinpointed on the corners all night, and a good overhand curve, but his most effective pitch Tuesday was a straight changeup that kept the Rangers lunging.

"I've accused David of throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there, and that's what he did tonight," Texas Manager Johnny Oates said. "He moved the ball around, changed speeds . . . he was very creative."

The Rangers have devoured left-handed starting pitchers, who combined for a 12-23 record and 6.49 ERA in 48 starts against Texas this season, but only three Rangers reached second base against Wells.

Wells struck out Mike Simms on a full-count curve to end the seventh with runners on first and second, and after Mark McLemore's one-out double in the eighth, Wells struck out Roberto Kelly looking at an inside fastball.

He then got Rusty Greer to ground out, shortstop Derek Jeter charging Greer's broken-bat bleeder and making a strong, off-balance throw to first.

"Everyone on the field and bench was holding their breath on that one," Yankee right fielder Paul O'Neill said of Jeter's gem. "That play was as big as hitting a three-run home run. It could have changed the whole game."

Wells faced the dangerous Juan Gonzalez three times, and the American League RBI leader hit the ball in fair territory once--a dribbler that stopped a few feet in front of catcher Jorge Posada, who threw out Gonzalez in the first inning. Gonzalez struck out in the fourth and fouled out in the seventh.

Of Wells' 135 pitches, 93 were strikes, but it was clear in the eighth "he was running on fumes," Yankee Manager Joe Torre said. Closer Mariano Rivera retired the side in order in the ninth.

"You talk about a courageous outings, that was a classic one-on-one matchup," Torre said. "David was exhausted, but he managed to get the outs he needed."

So did Stottlemyre--except for the second inning.

Posada walked with one out, and Chad Curtis, the former Angel who was supposedly starting for defensive purposes--fooled them again, Torre did--banged a Stottlemyre slider into the right-field corner.

Gonzalez made a long run and stretched his left arm out at the warning track, but the ball glanced off his glove for a double, advancing Posada to third. Scott Brosius, the Yankees' No. 9 hitter who has had a season most No. 3 hitters would envy (.300, 19 homers, 98 RBIs), grounded an RBI single to right for a 1-0 lead.

Chuck Knoblauch, with Brosius running, struck out on a full-count pitch, but Brosius stopped between first and second and Curtis raced home when Rodriguez's throw went past the mound.

Ranger second baseman Mark McLemore made no attempt to throw out Curtis, who slid home well before Brosius was tagged out in a rundown to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead.

Stottlemyre, the son of Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, gave up only six hits in eight innings and struck out eight, all but taming a team that has been tabbed as one of the best in baseball history.

"If we were going to make a statement, we didn't do it tonight," O'Neill said. "It wasn't like we went out and beat anyone up."

With a headbanger like Wells, the Yankees didn't have to.

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