Chacon, Small have saved Yankees

It's been almost two months since Shawn Chacon morphed into an American League success story, and still, no one seems to understand why his curveball remains so unhittable. Of all the detours the Yankees have taken on their way to first place -- Robinson Cano's replacing Tony Womack at second base, Jason Giambi's rediscovering his home run muscles -- none has been as surprising as Chacon's making baseball executives forget he had a 7.11 ERA with the Rockies last year.

"Anyone who tells you they could've predicted what Shawn's done, or did predict it, is lying," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "When we got him [July 28] we needed a pitcher, and he was better than what we had on the roster. That was about it. The rest you can credit to Shawn."

Or, more precisely, that big loopy curveball that starts at the eyes and goes hurtling toward the knees. It's late, it's sharp and well hidden by an unusual leg kick that creates a momentary delay in Chacon's delivery. Factor in his newness to the league and the adrenaline surge of pitching in a pennant race, and you begin to understand how the right-hander has held the American League to a .231 batting average this month while the Yankees have stormed past the Red Sox.

Chacon will take the mound Friday night against the Blue Jays, not thinking about the consequences of manager Joe Torre's problem with an overcrowded starting rotation. Chacon and Aaron Small have been the Yankees' two biggest pitching surprises in 2005, but one of them could be sent to the bullpen next week, or certainly in the postseason should the Yankees get there.

Torre admits he has "a terrific problem" trying to work around Randy Johnson, whose once-every-five-days schedule is practically written into the franchise charter, and Mike Mussina, who is finally healthy again. With Chien-Ming Wang also needing innings, the math is guaranteed to break someone's heart.

So who goes? On the strength of their numbers, it's hard to imagine Chacon and/or Small becoming a reliever. Chacon rebounded from a disastrous outing against the Red Sox Sept. 10 (three innings, five runs) by shutting out the Blue Jays over eight innings in a 1-0 win Saturday. Small is a perfect 9-0, despite being roughed up by the Orioles Tuesday, which prompted Torre to finally conclude, "It would've been much rougher going for us this year without Chacon and Small."

But there are certain realities that'll force Torre's hand, beginning with the simmering crisis in the bullpen: the Yankees' middle relievers have a 5.27 ERA, while Mariano Rivera is risking burnout as he nears a career-high in innings pitched. Twice in the last week, the closer has been rushed into a game that the Yankees once led by at least seven runs. Rivera said, "This is my job, I have to do it," and added, "hopefully, we'll have a blowout soon."

Of course, Rivera didn't have to say the Yankees need help in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. The Yankees' vulnerability in the middle innings is an open secret in the American League, reinforced Thursday night when the non-Rivera bullpen nearly gave away a 7-1 lead en route to a 7-6 win over Baltimore.

The answer might be Chacon and Small, both of whom would be more adaptable to working in the pen than, say, Jaret Wright and Wang, both of whom have suffered serious shoulder injuries this year. If the Yankees reach the postseason, Felix Rodriguez, Scott Proctor and Alan Embree will likely be replaced by Chacon, Small and Al Leiter.

If so, Chacon's body of work as a Yankees starter will be remembered for that clutch 1-0 win over Toronto, probably the most pressure he's ever felt on the mound.

"It kind of felt similar to a playoff game," Chacon told reporters afterward. "Not that I know. But that's as close as I've gotten."

He might talk as if he'd survived an October moment, but truth is, Chacon is blissfully detached from pennant-race heat. Not only does he act like an outsider -- he looks like one, too, wearing his pants baggy and low in a decidedly non-Yankee fashion statement. But that street-cool is part of Chacon's blessing, and it doesn't go unnoticed by Torre. The manager will have to decide just how much he trusts the former Rockie by next weekend.

Torre is currently considering starting Wang next Friday at Fenway, followed by Randy Johnson Saturday and Mussina in the regular-season finale. If a one-game playoff is necessary, it'll be Chacon on the mound. At least that's the latest equation. But the question of who can best hold town the Red Sox in an end-of-the-world scenario is still unclear.

As logic-defying as Chacon's curveball is, the Sox had no trouble solving him two weeks ago. Manny Ramirez and John Olerud both homered, and nine of the 18 batters Chacon faced reached base. Small, who changes speeds and works the corners without any stand-alone weapons, nevertheless lasted into the seventh inning of an 8-4 win over Boston on Sept. 9.

That was Small's breakthrough moment as Yankee, as they went on to take two of three and push onward in the franchise's greatest second-half surge since the Red Sox were caught in 1978. Who'll carry the Yankees this October is still Torre's secret, but the manager who's been accustomed to designer-label pitching in the last decade doesn't seem to mind the generic brand substitutes.

Of Chacon and Small, Torre smiled and said, simply, "I don't know where we'd be without them."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.