It's good when things go like this: The Yankees, who by Monday had lost 11 of their last 17 and were 1� games behind the Blue Jays, surely would love to have had the Wells of the past 1� seasons instead of Clemens. In his 45 starts with New York, Clemens was 19-16 with a 4.57 ERA. Last year, as he struggled with his confidence and control, many wondered if he was hiding an injury. This year he spent 15 days on the disabled list with a strained groin before coming back strong, allowing one run over seven innings in Sunday's 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Despite that impressive outing, one thing remains certain: The Rocket's air of invincibility is gone. Meanwhile Wells—the man the Yankees believed would collapse—had logged 353 innings as of Monday, fourth most in the majors since the start of last year. "David's been blessed with good health and a rubber arm," says Fregosi. "His durability is vital to us."
The stoic, uninspired Yankees need a loosey goose like Wells, someone who can laugh at himself, then go out and pitch a complete-game five-hitter, as he did in Toronto's 5-2 win over the Devil Rays on June 28. Although Wells is hardly a Yankee immortal (his 34 wins over two seasons in pinstripes ranks 76th in team history, one ahead of the legendary Melido Perez), he looms larger than life in the minds of the Big Apple media and the team's loyal fans. "Boomer was one of those guys who kept the team relaxed," says Yankees righty reliever Jeff Nelson. "I always thought he was a perfect fit for New York. This city brings surprises every day, and he brought a surprise every day. He made things fun."
Wells has not made things fun for opposing hitters this year. After going six innings and getting the decision in the Blue Jays' 6-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles last Monday, he had faced 509 batters and walked only 15 for a major-league-leading 1.11 walks per nine innings. Just as impressive, he had started 334 of those batters—a startling 66%—with a strike. "He's had two games this year when he got hit hard," said Toronto righthander John Frascatore last Friday. "One time [on April 14] he gave up six runs to Seattle in the first inning, and I know his back was killing him. The other time [on May 20] he gave up six to the White Sox, and I'm sure he was hurt, too."
Unlike Martinez, who can retire batters with the sheer viciousness of his repertoire, Wells relies on smarts, instinct and, most of all, location. While his fastball, which used to top out at 95 mph, usually stays around 90, Wells mixes his pitches (two-and four-seam fastballs, a slider and an off-the-table curve) with all the predictability of a slot machine. In that June 28 game, righthanded-hitting Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty, Wells's teammate in Detroit, was confounded in four at bats. In the second inning Flaherty saw multiple curveballs and grounded out to third. "Naturally," says Flaherty, "I expected the same my next at bat." Instead, Wells threw Flaherty three sinking fastballs away, forcing another groundout. "By now," says Flaherty, "I'm all messed up." In the seventh inning Flaherty flied out on the first pitch: a curve-ball. In the ninth Wells struck him out with a 90-mph outside fastball. "When I caught David, he didn't have that kind of stuff," says Flaherty. "The curve—I don't know where it came from, but he commands it beautifully."
Last February, upon reporting to spring training, Wells ripped the Blue Jays for having traded outfielder Shawn Green (to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Raul Mondesi) and former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen (to the St. Louis Cardinals for lefty reliever Lance Painter and catcher Alberto Castillo), saying, "We got crap in both trades" and "I don't see us being too strong." Since then, he has embraced his new teammates and become—of all things—a role model. Pitching coach Rick Langford insists that righty starters Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and Roy Halladay, all 25 or younger, pay special attention when Wells is on the mound. Recently, when the wives of several teammates were trying to score tickets to a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, Wells grabbed the nearest phone, and in a matter of minutes the deed was done. "I don't know who he knows, but he's always got connections," says Bush. "Boomer feels good making other people happy."
Wells says he doesn't care about starting the All-Star Game; "It doesn't matter," he says, "as long as you're there." Nor does he take potshots at the Yankees when baited by reporters to comment on his trade for Clemens. "There are more interesting topics," he says.
Although Wells is pitching better than ever, next season could be his last. He's in the first season of a two-year, $16 million extension, which also contains incentive bonuses and includes a team option at $7.75 million for 2002. If the club doesn't pick it up, says Wells, he'll retire as, of all things, a Blue Jay. Somewhere, Dave Lemanczyk is smiling.
"I don't think Boomer wants to be Orel Hershiser," says Ash, referring to the 41-year-old righthander whom the Dodgers recently released after a run of three miserable starts. "He wants to go out in style. His dream exit would be to pitch a no-hitter and just keep on walking and never turn back. That's the Boomer Wells I know."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]