No New York Yankee in history has ever begun his career in pinstripes with a 10-0 record. Not Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Whitey Ford or Ron Guidry. But, on Thursday night in Camden Yards, 33-year-old Aaron Small, who has pitched for 17 different minor league teams in a 16-year pro career, defeated the Orioles, 8-4, to become the first perfect "10" in Yankee annals.
If the Yankees somehow go to the World Series this year, the journeyman Small -- making the big-league minimum and epitomizing in every way the perfect anti-Yankee -- will be the biggest single reason. One of the most unexpected bargain-basement players in the game's long history, Small was stuck in Class AAA with a 1-4 record at the all-star break and assumed he'd soon quit the sport. Now, he may have saved the season of the most expensive team ever fielded, the $200 million Yanks.
On this evening, Small was at his underwhelming best, changing speeds, hitting corners and shutting out the Orioles on one hit through six innings as the Yanks built an 8-0 lead -- and sent a message to the Red Sox, who were battling Toronto in Fenway Park. Small went 62/3 innings, allowed only two runs on a Javy Lopez homer and lowered his ERA to 3.20.
"It can't get any better than this. But I hope it does," said a grinning 6-foot-4 Small. "I never saw it coming. In the middle of this season [at Columbus], I thought I'd probably retire after this year. What has happened the last few weeks has absolutely been worth all the wait. It's like a fairy tale. But one I hope isn't over until the end of October."
"I'll give up my turn to give him the ball," teased pitcher Mike Mussina in a nearby locker. "Sometimes, you have to play the hot hand."
Without Small, this final weekend of the season -- with the Yankees heading to Fenway Park with a one-game lead in the American League East over the Red Sox -- might have been a meaningless bore. Now, baseball could hardly offer more drama, especially since, if the teams are tied on Sunday night, they'll have a one-game playoff in Yankee Stadium on Monday.
For a while Thursday evening, the Yanks thought they might have a two-game lead, which might almost have seemed safe in Fenway. But Toronto blew a 4-1 lead and, in the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox put two men on base with David Ortiz at the plate. TV sets were on in all corners of the Yankees' clubhouse. Coaches and team executives watched in other side rooms. Every Yankee tried to act unconcerned, but there was a cheerful buzz and cackles of laughter.
Then, Ortiz grounded a single to left, the Red Sox won, 5-4, and the game was on. Instantly, the Yankee room fell completely silent. Time for business? Or had a faint hope been dashed that Fenway might not hold any of last year's bitter memories?
Without Small, however, none of this late-season Yankees drama would ever have happened. Even he couldn't imagine it. In parts of seven seasons with six different teams, Small had a career ERA, before this season, of 5.49. And his last big-league win -- one of only 15 in his life before this season -- was way back in 1998. The Marlins were desperate enough to let him pitch in seven games last season. His ERA of 8.27 sent him to the very fringes of the game.
"You would never believe Randy Johnson could go [10-0] let alone a guy who in spring training was like a walk-on," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre. "We liked him in spring training, but he's been really special."
The Yankees have so many mighty sluggers that if one had been subtracted this year, even an Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield or Derek Jeter, other New Yorkers would have taken up the slack. But pitching, now that was another issue. New York ranks 21st in baseball in ERA (4.49). And that's with Small aboard since July 20. Where would they be without him? In a season when the Yankee pitching staff has been decimated, Small and, to a lesser degree, Shawn Chacon (7-3), have buoyed a team with barely any semblance of healthy or competent starting pitchers.
"Without Aaron and Shawn, we'd probably be 10 games out now," said Rodriguez, who has called Small "the savior."
"He's been heaven sent," said GM Brian Cashman.
When Small walks off the mound in Yankee Stadium, the PA system plays, "It's a Small World." Or, sometimes, they say that his arrival seems more like a Small miracle.
As Small walked off the mound in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, most of the crowd -- composed of Yankees fans -- gave him a standing ovation. So, baseball will have Armageddon III -- or at least some version of it -- this weekend in Boston, where Small is regarded as just the second Yankee called Aaron whose middle name should be "Bleeping."
The Yanks don't like to put too much pressure on Small, who has become a kind of team talisman. New York is second in the majors, behind Boston, in runs scored. And when Small pitches, they tend to pile on the punishment. He's 10-0 (8-0 as a starter) with tons of help. And, Thursday night was no exception. It took New York all of eight minutes to stun the pathetic Orioles.
In Camden Yards this season, no one has hit a home run onto Eutaw Street. That is, no one had until Giambi did it at 7:17 p.m. when his three-run first-inning blast off Erik Bedard soared over the scoreboard, the flag porch, the high wrought iron fence and the Bar-B-Q pits behind it. For the Yankees, with the gigantic Small on the mound, that seemed insurmountable.
However, in the celebration of Small, as well as praise for the Yanks who have won 15 of 18 and gone 34-13 to pass the Red Sox, it should not be overlooked that the Orioles have lost seven of eight games against the Yankees in the last dozen days.
"Every September it's the same thing with this team. We don't put a major league quality team on the field at the end of the year," said one prominent Oriole Thursday night. "How many players do the Yankees have on their bench that we would have in our starting lineup tonight? Probably five. Matt Lawton, Mark Bellhorn, Ruben Sierra, Tino Martinez and Tony Womack.
"And how many players in our lineup now would be 'extra men' for most teams? Probably five. Face it, the Yankees ought to win."
But without Small, they wouldn't have.
"I just got off the phone with my wife back home [in Loudon, Tenn.]," said Small, who has two children, 6 and 4. "I get teary-eyed thinking about how she's stuck with me. Three weeks ago, we finally got DirecTV so she could watch the games live.
"I told her, 'Go ahead and spring for the $50.' "