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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Vernon Wells turns back the clock

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

DENVER -- Of all the unlikely things that happened Wednesday -- Joe Girardi's pregame decision to bat his pitcher eighth, Mother Nature's decision to stop a torrential downpour just in time for the game between the Yankees and the Colorado Rockies to be played, a rookie third baseman's decision to hold the ball just long enough for the go-ahead run to score -- perhaps the most unlikely event of all was the sight of Vernon Wells, lifelong outfielder, standing out at third base at the start of the ninth inning.

"Playing third base with Mariano Rivera on the mound," Wells said, shaking his head in disbelief. "That's most likely something that will never happen for me again, but you never know."

No, you never do, especially with the Yankees' $275 million third baseman out until after the All-Star break, his $12 million replacement on the shelf with a sore back, and the third choice, Eduardo Nunez, nursing a sore ribcage.

Vernon Wells
Vernon Wells scored to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the ninth. In the bottom of the inning, he'd play third base behind Mariano Rivera.

But Wells knew before the game that such a turn of events was possible, having been alerted by his manager to be ready.

And in the top of the ninth, when Girardi sent Travis Hafner up to hit for starting third baseman Chris Nelson, Wells realized what had merely been possible three hours earlier was about to become terrifying reality.

"The panic set in immediately," he said.

Wells, 34 years old and a veteran of 15 major league seasons, had never played one minute of any of those seasons in the infield. In fact, he might never have played the infield in his life except for the fact that his entire high school infield flunked its way off the team way back when, forcing him into emergency duty at shortstop as a 17-year-old.

"I was pretty bad," he said, "But if I made an error, I'd just think, 'Oh, well, now I'll just hit a home run.'"

And now, here he was. He already had three hits, including the two-run home run that kept the Yankees in the game for eight innings and the infield single in the ninth that helped them take the lead. And now he had to get through one more test before he and the team could call it a night. The Yankees had taken a 3-2 lead in a most unlikely way -- on two infield singles, a pair of walks, a very lucky break on a stolen base and an almost-as-lucky break when Rockies infielder Nolan Arenado hesitated just long enough on Brennan Boesch's bases-loaded grounder to enable Boesch to beat the throw, forcing in the go-ahead run.

"Once Boeschy was called safe, I was like a little kid jumping around," Wells said. "Then I quickly stopped and realized I had to play third base and got my head together."

There were still three outs to get, and even with Rivera on the mound, odds were that Wells would be called upon to get one of them.

"The ball's always going to find you," Girardi said. "You can count on that."

And of course, it did. With one out, the dangerous Carlos Gonzalez smashed a one-hopper between third and short. And Wells, accidental high school shortstop, took two giant strides to his left, pocketed the friendly hop and fired across the infield to Lyle Overbay for the second out of the inning.

If you didn't know better, you would never have suspected that the guy making the play was an outfielder by trade, and by choice. "I got hit in the mouth at second base when I was 12 and immediately moved to the outfield," he said. So you can imagine how it felt when, in the ninth inning, Wells looked at the Yankees' dugout and saw infield coach Mick Kelleher waving him closer to the hitter. "I was like, 'What? I've got to play in? I'm [playing in] already!"' he said. "It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me, that's for sure."

But in his short time as a Yankee, Wells has already proven himself to be a consummate professional and a team player, and while he played up the comic aspects of his brief foray to the infield after the game, it was clear that he relished the challenge and reveled in his success.

"It was fun," he said. "If you're going to be over there and you have Mariano on the mound, it would be fun to get a ball. I got a fairly easy one to get a chance to make a play."

The Wells-to-third-base maneuver had apparently been germinating in the mind of Girardi for some time now, ever since the manager saw Wells taking ground balls at third base during batting practice at Yankee Stadium sometime in April.

It was a day on which Wells was not in the lineup, and as Girardi said, "You can learn a lot on a day off."

What Girardi learned was that if he ever got into a dire situation in which he found himself short of infielders, he might be able to plug Wells in.

Plus, as Girardi pointed out, "These days my spare infielders are outfielders and catchers."

Over the past two weeks, with Kevin Youkilis going on the DL with lower back soreness and Nunez out, the manager found himself staring that opportunity right in the face.

"It's not like I'm just [throwing stuff] against the wall," Girardi said. "I mean, it's thought out, you know?"

Girardi could afford to crow a little bit because when the night began, it seemed ripe for the second guess, beginning with his decision to flip-flop David Phelps and Austin Romine in the batting order, a la Tony La Russa circa 2008, and moving right on to the moment in the top of the ninth when he decided to trade a real third baseman, Nelson, for a real hitter, Hafner, knowing what it would mean in the bottom of the ninth.

Not all of Girardi's machinations worked out -- Phelps, who pitched a wonderful six innings, and Romine, were equally futile at the plate, and Hafner wound up striking out with the bases loaded -- but Boesch came through with a hard smash in the hole that forced Arenado to make a diving stop, and Boesch's hustle was just enough to allow him to beat the throw, enabling Wells to score from third.

That became possible because of Wells' third hit of the night leading off the inning, and because of a hit-and-run that turned into a stolen base that should have been an out, except that in his haste to apply the tag to Wells, Rockies shortstop Jonathan Herrera dropped the throw.

That opened the door to a walk to Overbay, and a perfect sacrifice bunt by Ichiro Suzuki that moved the runners to second and third, followed by an intentional walk to Jayson Nix that loaded the bases for Hafner, and ultimately, Boesch.

It was a beautifully managed inning, a triumph of maneuvering by a manager who generally has little more to do than fill out a lineup card and reach for the sunflower seeds.

Which may be why Girardi bristled a bit when a questioner implied the Yankees had "stolen" themselves a win here. "Stealing one is when you're down and someone makes an error or you get a call that goes your way," he said. "That's stealing. But our guys played a good game tonight."

And none of them played better than Vernon Wells, who in his 1,631st major league game did something he had never done before.