PHOENIX — David Wells has won one game in his second stint as a Padre. He sure picked the right game to win.
The man with the reputation as a big-game pitcher was both big and game Saturday afternoon.
He pitched the Padres into the playoffs by turning the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bats into mere fly-swatters.
In six innings of the Padres’ 3-1 victory, he allowed nary a run and only four harmless singles. Not one Arizona runner reached second base against him.
The only moment when Wells wasn’t in complete control was after the bottom of the sixth as he failed to talk manager Bruce Bochy out of taking him out of the game.
Bochy, with faith in his bullpen trio of Cla Meredith, Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman, called it a day for Wells and saved a few bullets for the postseason.
“The guy never ceases to amaze me,” Bochy said. “This is an outing I’ll never forget.”
Wells’ big-game reputation was built on a 10-3 postseason record. Games such as Saturday are why general manager Kevin Towers was willing to trade a top catching prospect, George Kottaras, for only a few weeks of service by Wells. And such games are why Bochy wasn’t worried about the fact Wells missed his last start because of the gout, has battled other injuries all season and hadn’t won in four starts since the Padres reacquired him.
Heck, Wells spent much of the game Friday night in the trainer’s room after his back stiffened. Bochy, however, knew what he had once he got a look at Wells in the morning.
“He was locked in and focused,” Bochy said. “He was here early and ready. The bad thing is that meant we had to listen to his music — three hours of Metallica.”
The clubhouse may have been rocking, but Wells silenced the crowd at Chase Field once he took the mound. His second inning tookall of five pitches, his third only six.
“This is what I live for,” Wells said. “This is what I’ve played for is the opportunity to pitch in a big game when it counted. There’s nothing better.”
Make no mistake, this was big. Had Wells failed Saturday, the Padres might be facing a must-win game today. The Phillies failed to fold in the wild-card chase, so it might have been an all-or-nothing affair today. Instead, Woody Williams will pitch with the game determining the division champion and playoff position rather than the postseason itself.
Wells had a ready answer for why he’s at his best when it matters most.
“I’m not afraid to fail, and that goes a long way,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. Don’t take it home. I want the ball in the biggest games because I’m not afraid to fail. I’m not going to take it personally.”
Whether it’s the Zen of Metallica or just the experience of 632 big-league appearances, Wells has a system that works for him. By enjoying the experience and laughing at failure, he never plays tight.
Watching him pitch, it looks like he’s just lobbing the ball toward the plate. There’s not an iota of tension.
“You just play catch with your catcher,” Wells said. “Throw the ball to your spots. You just go out and have some fun and rely on your defense.”
It worked to near perfection Saturday, but Wells revealed he had a few “butterflies” before the game.
His thoughts turned to the fact that if he lost, it might be his last game. He has said this will be his last season, and he reiterated his retirement plans upon ensuring at least one October start.
But he offered a caveat.
“I’m graduating,” he said. “I’m like Junior Seau right now. But if they give you a stupid offer, how can you say no?”
That ultimate decision is for the winter. Up first is some October baseball. Then Wells plans his first visit to Africa. He’s going hunting.
Big game, of course.
Published in the North County Times on Oct. 1, 2006.