Rick Krivda was originally scheduled to start last night's series opener against Chicago. But David Wells, knowing what was at stake, eagerly took the ball.
Better a veteran should pitch the first game of such an important series, even on three days' rest. Better a veteran should fight through a rocky first inning to save the bullpen.
It was a gutty, inspirational performance by a pitcher who three months ago admitted to quitting on the mound, a pitcher who six weeks ago seemed on the verge of getting traded to Seattle.
Hot night, aching back, a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the first inning -- and still Wells worked into the eighth, giving the Orioles their season-high sixth straight quality start.
His first battle was a memorable 13-pitch strikeout of Danny Tartabull with the game slipping away in the first. His final triumph was a Dave Martinez pop-up on a 3-2 count for the first out of the eighth.
Only after Orioles manager Davey Johnson emerged from the dugout did the tired warrior finally surrender, for once leaving the mound without a fight.
First baseman Rafael Palmeiro patted him on the back. Catcher Chris Hoiles shook his hand. The crowd at Camden Yards stood and roared as Wells walked off, waving his cap high.
My, how times change.
My, how teams change, too.
The Orioles not only have taken the wild-card lead and trimmed a 12-game AL East deficit to 2 1/2 , but they also seem prepared to shed their reputation as big-game chokers once and for all.
They seized the moment every which way last night, from Roberto Alomar's spectacular run-scoring slide to Palmeiro's two-run homer to the clutch relief pitching of Alan Mills and Randy Myers.
But it all would have amounted to nothing, if not for the courage of Wells.
His 13-pitch battle with Tartabull set the tone for the entire night, and perhaps the rest of the pennant race.
Bases loaded, none out in the first, against a cleanup hitter who beat Wells with a home run earlier this season.
And Wells struck him out.
Robin Ventura followed with a sacrifice fly for the White Sox's only run, then Ray Durham flied out to end the inning.
"Basically, that inning won the ballgame for us, the way he got out of it," Johnson said.
Wells got ahead 0-2, but Tartabull fouled off eight pitches with two strikes. It was the ultimate game within a game, a tension-filled, baseball tug of war.
"After a while, you just wanted him to put it in play one way or the other," Todd Zeile said.
Wells started Tartabull with five fastballs, then threw a curve, then came back with five more fastballs, then two more curves.
Hoiles noted later that Tartabull didn't make good contact on the first set of curveballs, and didn't seem quite prepared for the second.
Johnson said Wells threw soft breaking balls early, then struck out Tartabull on "a hard, snapping hook, just a great pitch."
"You can't give up," Wells said. "Deep down you've got to reach back further and try to come up with something. That's what I did."
And the White Sox never recovered.
"You don't see at-bats like that very often," Zeile said. "That was the start of the momentum shift right there."
Wells needed 28 pitches to get through the first inning, and remained in danger of an early knockout if the pattern continued.
But he breezed through the next four innings, throwing only 37 pitches. The result was his 12th quality start in 14 tries since the All-Star break.
All this, on a night he wasn't even supposed to pitch.
The Orioles are back in a five-man rotation, and by using Krivda last night, they could have kept the top four starters on normal rest.
But Johnson asked Wells to pitch on short rest, and, as usual, Wells was agreeable. He said he prefers pitching every fourth day, even now with an aching back.
"I want the ball," Wells said. "If it takes going to a four-man [rotation] every time out, that's what I'll do. Anything for this team right now, if I can do it, I will."
Even if it means going for treatment three times a day, even if it means pacing in the clubhouse between innings to keep his back loose.
"David Wells always wants to go on the fourth day," Johnson said. "Before his last start, he said, 'Get me out of there in the fifth inning if you have to.' "
Indeed, this wasn't the first time Wells sacrificed.
He pitched on short rest against Cleveland on July 27, so Mike Mussina could work on normal rest against Milwaukee.
The change enabled Wells to face a predominantly left-handed lineup, Mussina a predominantly right-handed lineup.
The Orioles won both games.
Amazing that this is the same guy who looked so lethargic against California on May 31 that pitching coach Pat Dobson called his performance "embarrassing."
"I'm going to knock him over the head," said Wells' former manager, Sparky Anderson, now an Angels broadcaster.
Times change. Teams change. Players change, too.
"In big games like this, that's typical Dave Wells," Hoiles said. "To come back and pitch on three' days rest like he did, that's a pretty darn good job."
Pub Date: 9/11/96