Wells leaves Red Sox one loss away

BOSTON -- David Wells offended just about every member of the Yankees' organization this season, from George Steinbrenner to teammates, and there is really only one way to gain redemption in the Yankees' world. All sins are forgiven if you win in the postseason.

And by beating Boston, 4-2, in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series here Tuesday, Wells probably went beyond penance and straight into sainthood in the eyes of the manic Yankees' owner. Wells' strong seven innings gave the Yankees a 3 games to 2 lead in the best-of-seven series and put a stranglehold on the Red Sox, who can reach the World Series only by winning Games 6 and 7 in Yankee Stadium Wednesday and Thursday.

Game 5 breakdown

Unsung Hero

Derek Jeter. With Jeter leading the way, the Yankees were nearly flawless in the field and helped out David Wells on numerous occasions. The defensive gem came in the bottom of the fifth inning when Johnny Damon hit a ground ball up the middle that second baseman Alfonso Soriano snagged, and in the same motion flipped to Jeter at second for the second out of the inning.


Nomar Garciaparra. He did drive in his first run of the postseason on an eighth-inning groundout, but his struggles in this series continued. While he did walk twice, he also went 0-for-2 and grounded out in a crucial spot with runners on second and third to end the third inning.

Turning Point

With the Yankees clinging to a 3-1 lead in the fifth inning, the Red Sox loaded the bases with two outs against Wells. Manny Ramirez stepped to the plate and grounded out weakly into a fielder's choice to third base to end the inning. The Red Sox never got closer than two runs the rest of the way.

It Figures

Bill Mueller won the American Leaue batting crown this season with a .326 batting average. But he's been a non-factor as he's batting just .118 (2-for-17) in the series. He's also been hitless over the last three games (0-for-8) with four strikeouts.

On Deck

With the Red Sox facing elimination, they will hand the ball to John Burkett in Game 6. He last pitched in Game 4 of the Division Series against the A's, and will make this start on nine days' rest. Andy Pettitte will start for the Yankees. He was the winning pitcher in Game 2, and is 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA in two games in the postseason.

"I live for this time," said Wells. "I live for being the guy to go out there and be the one on the mound, try to make things happen, try to shut the other team down, because I'm not afraid to fail."

Boston's pitching matchups in the last two games are not exactly advantageous, either: John Burkett, the Game 6 starter, has been pounded by the Yankees in the past, and he faces Andy Pettitte, the Yankees' best pitcher this season. Game 7 starter Pedro Martinez seems to be waning as the postseason progresses, and he would face Roger Clemens.

The Yankees have held Boston's prolific offense to 15 runs in the five games of this prolific series; the Red Sox have 32 runs in 10 playoff games and they managed only six baserunners in seven innings in Game 5 against a pitcher who was in virtual exile earlier this season.

Details of Wells' book began leaking out before spring training, and the words infuriated Steinbrenner and many others in the organization. Steinbrenner would pass by Wells without speaking to him, and for months, players said that Wells existed on something of an island of isolation. After Wells struggled late in the summer, Yankees pitching coach

Mel Stottlemyre -- usually understated -- expressed unhappiness that Wells was not adhering to a regular throwing program.

Wells continues to require very high maintenance, he is 40 and he remains heavy. But when Wells is invested emotionally, he still can be a formidable pitcher because of his control and his ability to focus in tense situations. In Game 3, Wells began screaming at Pedro Martinez and rushed out of the dugout during the bench-clearing incidents, and this was not a good sign for the Red Sox; in spite of Wells' erratic attention to detail, it figured he would be devoted to beating Boston when he pitched in this series.

Wells had tweaked a groin muscle during one altercation, but he appeared to be in better shape than Derek Lowe, Boston's starting pitcher. Lowe spent his time in the dugout with a hot water bottle tucked under his left hamstring, and his stuff appeared good, but not great. He walked Jorge Posada with one out in the second inning, and after Posada moved to second on a hit-and-run groundout by Hideki Matsui, Lowe worked around Nick Johnson, falling behind 3 balls and 0 strikes before intentionally walking him.

The strategy was sound, because Aaron Boone followed, bearing a short history of brutal at-bats in this postseason, and Lowe prompted Boone to chop the ball into the ground. But Boone's bounder drove third baseman Bill Mueller back onto his heels, and Mueller fumbled the ball when it got to him, for an infield hit.

Karim Garcia was next, having been inserted into the lineup just before the start of the game. David Dellucci initially was to be the Yankees' starting right fielder, but after manager Joe Torre watched Garcia's first round of batting practice, he asked him how his bandaged left hand felt; Garcia was cut during the Game 3 brawl in the bullpen.

"Can you play?" Torre asked Garcia.

"If you give me the opportunity, I would love to," Garcia responded, and so Garcia was in the batter's box, the count 2 balls and 1 strike. Lowe conceded a ball over the middle of the plate, and Garcia whacked a single through the middle; Posada scored, Johnson followed, the first runs of the game. Boone came home a batter later when Alfonso Soriano singled. Wells was armed with a 3-0 lead early.

Alfonso Soriano, right, could play second base, shortstop or center field for the Rangers in '04.
Alfonso Soriano, right, could play second base, shortstop or center field for the Rangers in '04.
AP Photo

The Red Sox had runners at first and second and nobody out in the third, but after a groundout advanced the runners, Wells retired Todd Walker on a bloop fly to short left, the runners holding. He got ahead of slump-ridden Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra 1-2, then worked back into a full count -- before throwing a 90-mph fastball down the middle. Garciaparra swung through the pitch, and by the end of the day, his postseason batting average would dip to .205 with one RBI in 10 games.

Manny Ramirez slammed a high changeup for a homer in the fourth -- the only mistake Wells made all day, Stottlemyre thought -- a shot that reduced the Yankees' lead to 3-1. Soriano booted Trot Nixon's grounder to open the fifth, and with one out, Johnny Damon smacked a roller up the middle, the ball seemingly destined for center field.

But Soriano dove, backhanded the ball and used his glove to flip it to Jeter for the forceout, a play made even more remarkable by the fact that Soriano has struggled defensively in the postseason.

The inning continued, however, when Walker singled and Garciaparra walked. In the midst of this, Wells was briefly furious about the strike zone called by home plate umpire Joe West, stomping around the mound. Stottlemyre walked to the mound to calm down Wells, soothing him. The bases were loaded, two outs, and Wells got Ramirez to swing over a curve and ground to third for the final out. "He had a great night, and we needed it," said Stottlemyre of Wells.

"Boomer showed me nothing that surprised me out there tonight," said Grady Little, the Red Sox manager. "He has the ability to make pitches when he needs to."

Wells finished the seventh and Mariano Rivera threw the last two innings, allowing a run but never really giving Boston a chance to get back into the game. After the Yankees shook hands, they ate in their quiet clubhouse, where they don't play any pounding victory music. Jason Giambi walked over and patted Wells on the shoulder and rubbed his bald head, while Wells sipped a beer, happily. He finished off Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, and his victory in Game 5 was crushing for Boston.

Wells told reporters he believes in The Curse of the Bambino. "You know, going out there and just doing what I love to do, and especially in this ballpark, where it's pretty rare," said Wells. "I just try to follow suit and keep that theory alive."

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.