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A stopper from start

BALTIMORE -- The Before: "I hope they cool off. They had a lineup of veteran guys who can really make you pay for your mistakes. Now with [Brian] Roberts they have a whole different lineup. He's a guy leading off who can bat cleanup. He makes a good lineup great."

That was Terry Francona before the game. The After: "I thought his fastball was crisp from beginning to end. I thought he located. To have a three-hit shutout against that lineup is very impressive. That's why we got him. If he pitches like that, he's gonna win a lot of his starts."

That was Terry Francona after the game, after 41-year-old David Wells had thrown eight magnificent innings in the home park of a team leading the American League in batting average, home runs, total bases, and runs batted in. Skip, don't hold back. If David Wells pitches like that, he'll win 99.9 percent of his starts.

"I just felt good," Wells said. "How many times am I going to feel like this, I don't know. To have this night, I'll just cherish it."

I think we can stop worrying about that bad start.

"I don't think I've ever started out 0-2 before, not that I can remember," Wells said. "I was trying to impress. New team and all that. I was too fine, instead of going out and just pitching. Me, of all people, I should know that."

He's right about that. This being the hefty southpaw's eighth big league team and all, him being 41 and all, him having won 212 games before he put on a Red Sox uniform for the first time, yes, he certainly should have handled the situation better. But perhaps all it does is remind us that even crusty veterans who have seen just about everything there is to see during a 19-year major league career can still be susceptible to some normal human frailty.

But that was Then, and what difference does it make after we've seen a glimpse of the Now? After his first two starts, Wells was 0-2 with an ERA of 8.44. Two starts later, he is 2-2 with an ERA of 3.51. That's what 15 consecutive scoreless innings will do for you.

Wells started his official 2005 season in start No. 3, when he shut down Tampa Bay for seven innings last Friday. But Tampa Bay is one thing, and Baltimore is another.

No team in baseball -- the American League, anyway -- has been swinging the bat better than the Orioles, whose lineup is loaded with tough veteran outs, and which has been spiced up by the extraordinary play of the aforementioned Roberts, who entered last night's game as either No. 1 or No. 2 in the league in batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs, hits, total bases, triples, stolen bases, and multiple-hit games. If there had been an MVP covering the first 9 percent or so of the season, it would definitely have been Brian Roberts.

Last night he was just another anonymous 0 for 3 guy (with the lone Wells base on balls), part of an official 0 for 11 for the first third of the Baltimore order. That was followed by an official 2 for 9 in the second third of the order, and that was followed by an official 1 for 9 in the bottom third. David Wells, you see, was a Equal Opportunity Roadblock last night for the Baltimore Orioles.

"I felt good," Wells reiterated. "It was one of those days, from the bullpen to the game to the eighth inning. I was making my pitches, every one. I wish I could have 35 starts like that.

"My bullpen [session] was great, and I took it to the mound. I played catch with Jason [Varitek]. That's all I could do."

He was never in what you would call trouble, even in the sixth, when the Orioles had multiple base runners (first and second with one out) for the only time in the game. The single by Luis Matos wasn't exactly a rocket and even Wells is going to walk somebody every once in a while.

There was a little bit of excitement when Wells was engaged in conversation by members of the umpiring crew over his desire to spit on his hands and then wipe them in an attempt to get a better grip on what he felt were slick baseballs. The count to Melvin Mora was 0 and 1 at the time, and Wells knew what was going on. "Maz [Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli] was trying to break my rhythm," Wells said. "I understood."

"The hitters have their pine tar, but all we have is resin and that just makes it worse," he continued.

Anyway, the whole thing was resolved, and Wells went back to work, striking out Mora and retiring Miguel Tejada on a force out. There was a moment of concern in the Tejada at-bat, when the slugging shortstop just missed hitting an opposite-field home run, a blow that would have made it a one-run game.

But that was Baltimore's big chance, for Wells went back to being untouchable in the seventh and eighth, setting the home team down on four ground balls, a popup, and a strikeout.

The whole thing looked ridiculously easy. "Hitters will let you know how good your fastball is," said Francona. "And he was locating. The ball was coming out of his hand really well."

"He threw a great game," lauded Kevin Millar, who enjoyed watching the Baltimore hitters squirm from his first base vantage point.

"He had a great curveball. That's a David Wells game, right there. He pounded the strike zone. He changed speeds. There weren't a lot of well-hit balls."

Wells even made a deft play on a Roberts bunt attempt in the fourth, pouncing on a pretty good attempt and throwing out the leadoff man by a step. "The old dog can still go and field his position," he noted.

"He's a good athlete," maintained Francona. "He's just a ballplayer. He may not have the athlete's body, but I bet he was a good athlete. I bet he played other sports, and I don't even know for sure."

"I was a better basketball player," confirmed Wells. "Basketball, lacrosse, football. Played 'em all. Skateboarding. Motor Cross. I was the type of person that if I wasn't the best out there, I worked at it until I could compete. As a kid, failure wasn't an option."

It sure wasn't an option last night, when David Wells was so good he even impressed his 41-year-old self. "That's a good offense over there," he declared. "To get through three times unscathed, that's a good night."

That about sums it up.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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