- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

BALTIMORE Though he was the Baltimore Orioles' most reliable starting pitcher a year ago, Jason Johnson still came into his first start of the 2002 season with some uncertainty surrounding him.

By the time he departed after 7-2/3 brilliant innings last night, there wasn't much left to be uncertain about. Johnson hadn't lost his touch over the winter.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, neither had David Wells.

Making his return to the New York Yankees after three seasons away from the Bronx, Wells tossed 7-2/3 shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 1-0 victory before 32,142 frozen fans at Camden Yards.

The 38-year-old Wells, who battled back problems and inconsistency with the Chicago White Sox last year, was outstanding in his 2002 debut. He allowed four hits, walked one and struck out one as New York avenged its 10-3 Opening Day thrashing.

"I had it working, but it was a little tough tonight with the wind coming in," said Wells, who braved temperatures in the 40s and a swirling wind that had fans bundled up in layers. "I prefer cold weather. I've pitched well in the cold my whole career. I'm on Cloud Nine right now. I did my job I kept us in the ballgame."

Wells didn't need much offensive support, and fellow newcomer Robin Ventura accounted for the only run of the night when he homered down the right-field line to lead off the seventh.

When Wells began to run out of gas in the eighth, Yankees manager Joe Torre simply turned the game over to his renowned bullpen: Steve Karsay, Mike Stanton and closer Mariano Rivera.

Rivera, last seen walking off the field at Bank One Ballpark in November having blown Game 7 of the World Series, looked like his old self in his first save opportunity of the season. The right-hander allowed a single to Jeff Conine in the ninth but got Tony Batista and Melvin Mora to line out to end the game and spoil Johnson's strong season debut.

"He gave us a chance to win," Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove said of Johnson, "and that's all you can ask of your starters."

Johnson enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2001, rebounding from a 1-10 record to go 10-12 with a 4.01 ERA. He should have earned a few more victories, but was plagued by the fourth-worst run support in the AL (4.41 runs per nine innings).

The 28-year-old right-hander picked up right where he left off last night, holding the Yankees scoreless until Ventura homered to lead off the seventh. New York's new third baseman connected on an 0-1 changeup, lofting it high down the right-field line and just over the out-of-town scoreboard for his first home run in pinstripes.

"It wasn't even a bad pitch," Johnson said. "It was exactly where I wanted it, exactly the pitch I wanted to throw. It just happened that he was out in front of the ball, got a good part of the wood and it just made it over the fence."

Johnson departed with two out in the eighth having allowed the one run on six hits, striking out six and walking just one.

Too bad Wells was even better.

Few knew what to expect out of the portly left-hander in his first start since undergoing back surgery July 17, but Wells looked right at home in his return to the team he pitched for in 1997 and 1998.

Dressed in short sleeves despite the cold, Wells dominated from the start, retiring the first six batters before Jay Gibbons singled to open the third. The Orioles put runners on first and second with two out in the seventh, but Wells got Gibbons to foul out to third on the first pitch.

A few Baltimore batters made solid contact off Wells, particularly David Segui, who drilled a fourth-inning pitch to deep center field only to watch the ball get caught in the wind and fall harmlessly into Bernie Williams' glove. Without the wind, Segui's swat might have been a two-run homer.

"If fair was fair, we would have won the game," Hargrove said. "[Segui] hit the ball probably as well as anybody all night, he just didn't hit in the right place. Those are just the breaks of the game. It doesn't do any good to sit here and say, 'What if?'"

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