BALTIMORE — The little team that could? Not with their $200 million payroll, the omniscience, impatience and bombast of owner George Steinbrenner and the pinstriped arrogance inherent in their name.
Still, the New York Yankees have had much to overcome this season. They had their worst start since 1966. Their high-priced pitching staff was torn apart by injuries. They lost a three-game series to the horrid Kansas City Royals.
Yet the Yankees (92-64) have persisted. They have become the big team that might, taking a half-game lead over Boston in the American League East after last night’s rain-delayed 11-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
Anyone else and what the Yankees have done would be regarded from the outside with admiration and respect. Second baseman Robinson Cano and starter Chien Ming-Wang, both rookies, are performing like veterans. Along with Wang, pitchers Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, unwanted elsewhere, saved the rotation. Other players, additional spare parts, also have contributed. Anyone else, and this would be seen as a scrappy, feisty club that kept battling back.
Perhaps that’s the view of New Yorkers, Yankees manager Joe Torre said last night at Camden Yards. But the rest of the world?
“I think everywhere else we’re perceived as the fat hog that spends all the money,” Torre said. “Trust me, I’m not referring to anybody.”
Just so everyone is clear on this, Torre was not referring to Steinbrenner, the man who signs the checks and with whom he has had a somewhat testier relationship than in years past because of the Yankees’ struggles. Regarding that, Torre said what he always says: nothing until after the season.
“I’m talking about the fact that we have the money,” Torre said after the media laughter subsided. “You know, the rich people basically, I should say. That’s all we’re looked at as, in other places.”
New York won its seventh straight division title in 2004, but pitching was a season-long concern. Then came the epic, unprecedented collapse against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after the Yankees won the first three games.
Depressed, the Yankees went shopping. They traded for future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and signed free agents Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, shelling out more than $100 million in contracts to complete what figured to be a formidable rotation.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But Pavano, Wright and holdover starter Kevin Brown have been hurt most of the season, their contributions negligible. Even durable Mike Mussina missed three weeks with a bum elbow.
“And before all these injuries, which you can use as an excuse but which I refuse to do, we were healthy and full strength and playing like [garbage],” general manager Brian Cashman said. “We lost three in Kansas City earlier in the year. There’s no excuse for that.”
On May 6, the Yankees were 11-19 and nine games behind pacesetting Baltimore. Since then, they have gone 81-45, including 14 wins in their last 16 games.
Some things have remained constant. Mariano Rivera remains a dominant closer, and the lineup is powerful. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez is having a MVP-type year. First baseman Jason Giambi is completing a remarkable comeback from illness and the fallout from admitting steroid use to a grand jury investigating the BALCO scandal.
Cano, hitting close to .300 with power, also has been a huge surprise almost from the day he joined the team from Class AAA Columbus on May 3.
“He just came in and took over,” veteran center fielder Bernie Williams said.
Wang (8-4, 4.02) has been excellent, and the combined work of right-handers Small and Chacon has defied all probability, especially Small. At least Chacon was an All-Star with Colorado in 2003. Small, 33, basically had been a career minor league since 1998. His last big league start was in 1996. This year, he is 9-0 with a 3.28 ERA as both a starter and reliever. He has been called many things, including a “godsend,” by A-Rod.
“I could never foresee this, especially the way my career was going,” Small said. “I just needed an opportunity. It’s been a wild ride, being in the middle of a pennant race.”
Chacon, 27, wore out his welcome in Colorado, which drafted him out of high school in 1996. The Rockies made him a closer last year, and he saved 35 games but blew a bunch of others. He went back to starting this year and had a 1-7 record with a 4.09 ERA when the Yankees got him in late July for a pair of minor leaguers.
For the Yankees, Chacon is 6-3 with a 2.89 ERA.
“I always had confidence in my abilities,” he said. “I expect great things from myself all the time. But I never thought I’d be in this situation. It’s been a [great] ride for me.”
Using rookies and spare parts is not an entirely new concept for this or any other perennial winner.
“Every year since I’ve been here, the team at some point has had people who were not expected to do well step up and take charge,” said Williams, a Yankee since 1991.
It’s happened before for the Yankees, but maybe not quite like this.
“People try to look at us as the $200 million giant, but there’s no question we’ve come together as a team,” said Cashman, who is rumored to be considering leaving after trying to cope with Steinbrenner since 1998. “A team is [roster spots] one through 25, and there are a lot of guys here that have stepped up.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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