Boomer in Game 5 pressure cooker

MIAMI -- This wouldn't be the greatest day to have lunch with George Steinbrenner, especially if you happened to work for him.

In the wake of the Yankees' hard-fought loss in Game 4, when they battled back only to lose on a cheap 12th-inning homer off Jeff Weaver, the last pitcher on Joe Torre's 11-man staff, the season could boil down to getting a good outing from the square peg, David Wells.

Wells faces Florida's Brad Penny in Game 5 on Thursday night. A loss would put the Marlins one victory away from their second World Series title. It would leave the Yankees in a position they last recovered from in 1958, when they beat Warren Spahn and Lou Burdette in Games 6 and 7.

This is a situation that screams for seven solid innings from Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina. Instead Joe Torre will count on the one pitcher who doesn't fit the team's high level of professionalism, the one guy who requires a bed check.

The overweight, under-conditioned Wells was in a joking mood on Wednesday, poking fun at how he differs from well-conditioned workaholics like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.

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

There was laughter all around the room, as there often is when the engaging Wells speaks. But how comfortable will his teammates be wondering whether their Game 5 starter got his sleep or decided to hang out with friends in South Beach?

The problem with having Wells on your team is that you get his poor judgment in the same package as what he describes as his "rubber arm.'' He stands out like Jim Carrey in a room full of accountants.

There wasn't much funny about Wells' final performance in 2002. With the Yankees behind Anaheim two games to one in the first round, the Angels obliterated him. Wells allowed eight runs on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings as the Yankees were handed their earliest exit since 1997. It was a hard performance to laugh off.

After going 15-7 in the regular season, Wells has been solid this October. He's worked at least seven innings in each of his three starts. But he's already lost to Florida once, getting outpitched by Penny in Game 1.

"I thought I pitched well enough to win,'' Wells said. "But we were just flat. It just didn't work out. There's nobody to blame. If you're gonna blame anybody, blame me. I gave up the three runs. Redemption is good, and that's something I'd like to have (Thursday).''

Facing the Marlins twice in a six days figures to be a difficult task. Against the Cubs, they scored 14 runs in 18 innings the second time around against Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

Torre says he knew Florida would be a tough opponent.

"I watched the Cubs, how they played against the Cubs and the Giants,'' Torre said. "I mean there's no quit in these guys. We certainly never took them for granted. They beat two very good teams, and they had to come from behind all the time.

"There's a long way to go in this thing. We certainly know what they're capable of doing, and it's a battle for us and it's a battle for them. I think it's a treat for everybody who's watching.''

For Wells, tonight's start could determine if he stays in New York or moves elsewhere for 2004. The Yankees old a $6 million option on his contract for '04 with a $1 million buyout.

The numbers appear to be in his favor. Clemens is retiring and Pettitte is a free agent. But word is that the Yankees are likely to re-sign Pettitte. He would join Mussina and Jose Contreras to give Torre three certain starters. Weaver and Jon Lieber are also in the picture.

"As far as this being my last game as a Yankee, it could be,'' Wells said. "It's out of my hands. It's up to George Steinbrenner if they want to exercise my option. If they don't, then I move on. It's been great. It's been fun. It's a great organization, a great bunch of guys.''

Derek Jeter, you can count on. Ditto Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Pettitte and Mussina.

But can those guys count on Wells?

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.