Wells delivers big-time in the pinch

For the first time in more than a month, Vernon Wells found himself talking to reporters after a game about something other than struggling with the bat. A slump that had reached disastrous proportions – 9-for-his-previous 90 at-bats, a chilly .100 stretch – put him on the bench in favor of recent Triple A call-up Zoilo Almonte, already a crowd favorite at Yankee Stadium.

Wells tried not to get discouraged. He continues to work on a daily basis with batting coach Kevin Long to recover a stroke that got him off a strong start this year with the Yankees. So when manager Joe Girardi told him in the seventh inning to get ready that he may be needed off the bench, Wells saw that flame-throwing lefthander Jake McGee was in the Tampa Bay bullpen and went down the tunnel into the cage and hit some balls off a tee.

The call from the skipper came for Wells to bat for Chris Stewart after a bases-loaded walk to David Adams that got the Yankees to 5-4 in the game. With two out, a big hit was needed to put the Yankees in control. Wells got the big hit, his biggest in a long time, a bases-clearing double that headed the Yankees toward a 7-5 victory. With one swing, Wells drove in as many runs (three) as he had in his previous 97 at-bats combined.

“I never lost my confidence,” Wells said. “When you lose your confidence, you’re done.”

Wells concentrated on tracking McGee’s fastball. He decided to take the first pitch, which came in at 96 miles per hour and was a strike.

“I saw the ball really well and when I saw 96 on the scoreboard, I thought, ‘OK, at least I could see it,’ ” Wells said. “It’s the ones that go into the catcher’s mitt you don’t see that worry you. After that, I thought about getting a good swing and letting him supply the power. It felt good to hit a ball that didn’t land in somebody’s glove.”

The comeback victory was big for the Yankees, who coupled with the Orioles loss trail second-place Baltimore by only a half-game in the American League East standings. Meanwhile, the Rays’ loss dropped them into a virtual tie for fourth in the division with the red-hot Blue Jays, who won their 10th straight game.

“We have a chance to win a series against a division rival that has been tough on us, so this was an important victory,” Girardi said.

In many ways, it was a victory gift-wrapped from the opposition. Five Rays pitchers combined to walk nine batters, four of whom scored. Robinson Cano reached base five times, including a career-high four walks, the most for a Yankees player in a game since Alex Rodriguez May 15, 2009 against the Twins. Adams walked twice. He entered the game with zero walks in 86 major-league plate appearances. Tampa Bay also made two errors that resulted in three unearned runs, all driven in by Almonte with a two-run single and, of course, a bases-loaded walk.

A 3-1 Yankees lead all went away in the sixth inning when Wil Myers clouted his first major-league home run, a grand slam off a 0-1 fastball from CC Sabathia. The rookie’s drive to right-center was nearly caught by center fielder Brett Gardner but slammed off the top of the auxiliary scoreboard and into the stands.

Myers, who was called up from the minors two weeks ago, was the centerpiece of an off-season trade with the Royals in which the Rays surrendered pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Tampa Bay seems to grow pitchers. Alex Colome, Saturday’s starter, has not allowed an earned run in two major-league starts totaling nine innings.

Girardi hit pay dirt with the Wells move but not the one that called for Evan Longoria to be walked intentionally to pitch to Myers. You can’t fault the manager there, however. Longoria had already homered in the game to continue a loud history against Sabathia (.383, four doubles and six home runs in 47 at-bats). Myers may be on the come but prior to that at-bat he had yet to prove himself. He may start making managers re-think their positions.

The Yankees caught a major break when Rays manager Joe Maddon replaced Alex Torres at the start of the seventh. The lefthander had retired the five batters he had faced – three on strikeouts – and the Yankees had three lefty batters due up that inning – Robinson Cano, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay. Despite being right-handed, Joel Peralta has Maddon’s confidence in getting left-handed batters out. Peralta did retire Hafner but after walking Cano and before allowing a double to Overbay. A rally was in place. Walks to Almonte and Adams set the stage for Wells.

“In this game,” Wells said, “You never know what can happen.”

Ain’t that the truth.

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