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World Series | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

All's Not Very Well That Ends Wells

October 24, 2003|Ross Newhan

MIAMI — The left-hander known as Boomer has always been the anti-Rocket.

While Roger Clemens sustained his 19-year Hall of Fame career by lifting weights and running religiously, David Wells ran with the owls and confined his lifting to a cool stein or two.

"I'll leave the working and conditioning to [others] forever," Wells had been saying about 24 hours before his Thursday night start in Game 5 of the World Series.

"They can write a book and do videos," he said. "They can make money on that, on how to last 20 years in the big leagues by conditioning. I'll write the one, 'How Not to Work Out.' "

Who could question that the man who established his writing credentials with the controversial baseball expose that disrupted his New York Yankees in spring training wouldn't be writing about what he knows.

In fact, didn't he provide some additional first-hand fodder in his abbreviated start in Game 5?

Plagued by recurring lumbar disk problems during a season in which he dominated in the first half and struggled through the second, drawing criticism from pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre for not working hard between starts, Wells set the Florida Marlins down in order in the first inning, requiring only eight pitches.

He never made a ninth, however.

Limping slightly, according to observers, when he came off the team bus at Pro Player Stadium and again as he took the mound in the first inning, Wells failed to go out for the second because of lower back spasms.

Thrust into an emergency appearance, Jose Contreras, who pitched two innings in relief in Game 4, gave up three runs in the second, and the Marlins were en route to a 6-4 victory and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven World Series.

The wild-card Marlins can now eliminate their haughty opponents with a victory in either Game 6 or 7 in the Bronx, which contributed to George Steinbrenner's obvious discomfort and displeasure as he squirmed amid a crowd of 65,975.

As for Wells' discomfort, he was probably making his last start as a Yankee even before the spasms turned it into the shortest stint by a World Series starter since San Diego's Mark Thurmond was pounded out by the Detroit Tigers after retiring only one batter in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series.

The Yankees weren't about to pick up the $6-million, 2004 option on an out-of-shape pitcher who turns 40 in April, even though their rotation faces a significant overhaul with Andy Pettitte eligible for free agency and Clemens retiring.

Steinbrenner always has taken care of Wells -- even though they once almost came to sumo grips in a clubhouse disagreement -- but the pitcher said 2004 is out of his control in the same way that trying to go out for the second inning Thursday night was.

Wells has battled his back all season, felt it stiffen Wednesday, had to sit down briefly during his bullpen warmups Thursday and knew he was done when he threw a curve to Ivan Rodriguez, the third batter in the first inning.

"I knew it might be my last World Series start, but I couldn't risk my health," he said. "I wanted to keep going, wanted to give the team quality innings, but if I had tried I would have fallen down. It's very frustrating. I've worked through it before, but it just wouldn't loosen up."

The Yankees weighed their options as Wells labored in the bullpen, but "this has happened a few times and we've seen it get better with the more pitches he throws," Stottlemyre said. "This time it got worse."

It was bad timing, indeed.

An ailing bat prompted Yankee Manager Joe Torre to bench Alfonso Soriano. A gimpy knee, possibly requiring post-Series surgery, prompted Torre to scratch Jason Giambi. Then Wells went out, and Florida first baseman Derrek Lee said, "I was very happy. I knew Contreras couldn't go long because he pitched [Wednesday] night, and when you get in their bullpen, your chances are much better."

Contreras had enough time to get ready, Stottlemyre said, but some of the Yankee pitchers had trouble adjusting to the higher Pro Player mound in their first inning of work and tended to compensate by overthrowing.

"That seemed to be what Jose was doing" in the three-run second inning, Stottlemyre said. "I'm not criticizing the mound. It's just part of the adjustment that pitchers have to make in an unfamiliar environment."

The Marlins, of course, were on a high as they traveled back to New York late Thursday night. They still have to get through Pettitte and Mike Mussina in Game 6 and Game 7 if necessary, but the Yankees had to go to their inconsistent bullpen six times in the last two games and that could be a problem if they have to again early Saturday.

"With an off day [today], we'll be fine," Stottlemyre said. "Everybody will be ready." Including, perhaps, Clemens, who made the last start of his career Wednesday night but could be called on in relief.

Only Wells is done for sure.

"He's been fighting through it all year, taking it out there with a lot of pain," General Manager Brian Cashman said. "Unfortunately, it caught up with him and with us tonight."

Where and for whom Wells makes his first start of 2004 is uncertain. The back may even require career-threatening surgery.

At least, Boomer has another career on which to fall back and a lot of familiarity with conditioning as a possible story line, having dutifully managed to avoid it for so long.

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