LOS ANGELES – What David Wells was doing here, exactly, all doughy and fearless and pitching the Los Angeles Dodgers back into something like playoff contention, having been dumped and delivered again into times of consequence, well, it can only be a baseball thing.
He is 44 years old with a spirit going on 19 and a body going on fumes.
But he was laughing and pushing back his cap, the one with PokerStars.com on the front, and saying he'd wake up Friday morning, cut out Thursday night's box score and place it alongside his first major-league start. That was a loss, but it was against the New York Yankees and his idol, Ron Guidry, and so it was more than special.
"That little piece of paper," he said, "means a lot to me."
His right fielder that night was Jesse Barfield and his designated-hitter was Cecil Fielder, 20 years and three months enough time for the big-league arrival and settling in of their sons.
"I'm pretty sexy right now, I feel," Wells said, his olive T-shirt stretched and smeared across his torso. "Tomorrow's another day. I'll probably feel like (dirt) tomorrow. But, tonight I feel sexy."
He nearly quit a little more than a week ago in Chicago, when his fastball lacked direction and his curveball got all fussy, and maybe it crossed his mind that the San Diego Padres weren't so short-sighted to have let him go.
Rick Honeycutt, the Dodgers coach who himself pitched nearly to his 43rd birthday, talked him into one more game of catch, two left-handers letting it go in the outfield at Wrigley Field, throwing, talking, throwing.
"A lot of stuff goes through your mind," Wells said.
Then, the ball left his hand OK. Then it did it again.
"There were just some things," Honeycutt said. "There was not a lot of conversation or talk about mechanics, other than to let him talk."
They eventually got to tightening his cutter some, sharpening his curve, getting his body out of the way so his arm would swing free.
A couple days later, Wells pitched seven innings and won a game in San Francisco. And Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, alternating innings with Greg Maddux, living to a big-game reputation and a new white uniform, Wells beat the Padres with five brilliant innings and one ratty one. He'd brought the Dodgers, who won 6-3, to within 1 1/2 games of the sagging Padres, to a place of anticipation and energy, helping to enliven their final 2 1/2 weeks.
What the Dodgers needed, though, was a pitcher who'd stand in the gale of their horrible August, take the ball and, really, not give a damn. Just, you know, let it go.
Only five weeks ago, the Padres had had enough of Wells. He'd become a drag on their playoff hopes, his fastball straining to reach the mid-80s and his location choppy, each start draining their checking account by $175,000. In his final four starts there, he'd allowed seven runs in three different starts and five in the other.
So, the Dodgers found him three weeks into retirement. In four starts he has won three games and, with any luck, would have won the fourth.
Ned Colletti already has gotten his time and money's worth, and maybe four starts is what ol' Boomer Wells had left. But, dressed in his slacker gear and reliving the game in his slacker pose, Wells said he would give another season some thought, maybe push onward, see what a team might pay a middle-aged left-hander who might have the ability to pitch a little and, what do you know, mix in a couple hits.
Against the Padres, who generally don't do much offensively anyway, he flicked at the strike zone, stayed an inch or so off the barrels of their bats, and watched hopefully as Dodgers outfielders circled on the warning track. He allowed a single in the first five innings, when he also ran the bases twice, and lost his touch in the sixth, when the Padres scored three times on two home runs.
When the field was no longer big enough to hold Wells, he was done. He'd gone eight outs further than Maddux, who hadn't lost since early August. He'd whipped the team that had given him up for old and finished.
This was neither the David Wells the Padres remembered nor the Greg Maddux the Padres require. They've lost six of eight. In 10 days, they've lost their lead in the NL West and their comfortable margin in the wild-card race.
In the other clubhouse, Wells put his hands behind his head. This wasn't supposed to happen, he knew. But, these things happen, especially in baseball and occasionally in September.
"I didn't give up on myself," he said. "They gave up on me. Maybe they're having second thoughts on it. I hope so."