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Published: Wednesday, 4/30/2003

Contreras shows why Yankees gave him $32M

BY BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish had heard stories of two different pitchers named Jose Contreras.

“I had heard from guys who had seen him with the Cuban [National] Team who said he sits [at] 95 [mph] with his fastball and has a good splitter,” Parrish said. “In spring, scouts were saying he was around 90 and throwing a lot of splits - and not using his fastball.

“I didn't see that today. I saw the guy throwing in Cuba, marching it up there around 95.”

Contreras, the four-year, $32 million man the New York Yankees signed as a free agent this past winter, looked to be worth every penny while facing the Hens yesterday. The 31-year-old right-hander dominated Toledo, allowing just three hits while fanning eight in five shutout innings, as Columbus beat the Hens 7-1 yesterday at Fifth Third Field.

“I'm happy with [my performance] today,” Contreras said through an interpreter. “I had better control and I'm gaining confidence every time out. Today I had good control; I also had good velocity. My breaking pitches were all down in the zone.”

Contreras threw hard, with his fastball reaching the mid-90s at times. He also used a change-up in the mid-80s and a sharp-breaking curve to complement his fastball and split-finger fastball in a 71-pitch performance that included 44 strikes.

Kevin Witt, who had two of the Hens' three hits against Contreras, said the Cuban-born pitcher was impressive. “He was mixing it up pretty well, changing arm slots a bit, and he definitely knew what he was doing,” Witt said.

It was a far cry from Contreras' five appearances in relief for the Yankees. In five innings he had allowed 11 hits and six walks that had resulted in five earned runs. While Contreras was 1-0 in New York, he also had a 10.78 ERA.

As a result of his poor start, on Easter weekend Contreras was sent to the minors for more work. That resulted in a public flap between Yankee manager Joe Torre and owner George Steinbrenner. Torre had told Contreras he was being sent to Columbus, but Contreras ended up in Tampa working with Gordon Blakely, the team's senior vice-president of baseball operations.

Contreras, who pitched in a pair of simulated games in Tampa before joining the Clippers, said the chance to escape New York helped him pitch well. “I was able to relax and find myself,” he said. “It's a little different, because you don't have the pressure of the game. In New York, the goal is to win every game.”

Blakely and Billy Conners, the Yankees' vice-president for player personnel, were both at Fifth Third Field. Both left moments after the game ended and did not make themselves available for comment.

“I think I needed this; I needed to pitch,” Contreras said. “What I need to do is pitch. As far as when I'm ready to go back, [the Yankees will] let me know. But I'll definitely say I needed to pitch a little bit more to give me more confidence.”

Contreras is expected to start again for the Clippers on Sunday when they host Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Columbus manager Bucky Dent said Contreras' status after Sunday's start has not been determined.

- JOHN WAGNER



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