Contreras steps up one more time

Complete champs: Starters go the distance

ANAHEIM -- Just exactly how much does Jose Contreras mean to the Chicago White Sox?

"I think the biggest reason we are where we are is because of Jose," manager Ozzie Guillen said Sunday night.

And where the White Sox are is atop the American League, winners of the AL Championship Series, ready to play in the World Series. The White Sox got a lot of winning performances from a lot of people, and Paul Konerko was officially the MVP of the Championship Series. But you can easily make the argument that the White Sox don't reach this lofty level without Jose Contreras.

He won the clinching Game 5 of the Championship Series Sunday night, 6-3, with a complete-game performance, limiting the Angels to five hits, seemingly becoming stronger as the evening wore on, allowing no runs over the last four innings. But this was just the latest item in Contreras' growing list of contributions to the White Sox.

"Every time we need a big game, he got it for us," Guillen said. "Especially in the second half when we struggled, he did it in a big way. This kid went from the last starter to be the No. 1 in the playoffs.

"If you told me in April [that] Jose Contreras was going to be my ace and Bobby Jenks was going to be my closer, I would tell you 'I don't think we're going to win this.' But Jose came in and threw big with a lot of confidence and he won the game for us."

In the second half of the season, Contreras was a beacon of hope for this club. They built the 15-game lead and watched it dwindle to 1 1/2 games, but the one thing they could count on was Contreras producing a start that would give them a chance to win and probably more. He was 11-2 in the second half. He did not lose after Aug. 15, winning his last eight starts.

Contreras pitched his way into the Game 1 start in the Division Series against Boston. The importance of his victory in that game cannot be overstated. That Series was to be a test of whether the White Sox pitching could contain the imposing offense of the Red Sox. When Contreras held Boston to two runs over 7 2/3 innings, he not only gave the White Sox a lead, but he set the tone for the entire Series.

He lost Game 1 of the Championship Series, but pitched well enough to win. But here, in Game 5, it was absolutely fitting that Jose Contreras was on the mound to pitch and pitch all the way in the clinching game.

It has been a long road for Contreras, 33. He defected from Cuba and joined the New York Yankees in 2003. He showed promise with the Yankees, but, ironically, they grew disenchanted with him because he struggled against the Red Sox. Traded to the White Sox in July 2004 for Estaban Loaiza, Contreras was a blend of promise and erratic performance in the second half of that season and the first half of this one. But Guillen stuck with him, because he knew that Contreras had the best stuff of anyone on the Chicago staff. Contreras responded in the second half by improving his command, pitching with more confidence, and eventually emerging as a true ace.

You wondered, after all of this, if Contreras had imagined himself performing in a game this large, on a stage this large.

"Believe it or not, you get ready for this game from Day 1 in Spring Training," he said Sunday night through his interpreter, Ozzie Guillen Jr. "That's what all the teams are out there to do, to pitch in postseason, to play in the postseason and eventually go to the World Series.

"Today's game was a great game and I dedicate it to Chicago and to the fans of Chicago who have waited for so long. And I know they deserve it because they stood by me when I was pitching bad and now that I'm pitching great."

The complete game pitched by Contreras on Sunday night was the fourth straight for the White Sox in this Series. It was the first time this had happened in the postseason since the New York Yankees accomplished the feat in the 1956 World Series. One of those games was Don Larsen's perfect game. Contreras is now the lead starter on a rotation that had pitched its way into postseason history.

"I feel very proud of being part of this staff," Contreras said. "It never crossed my mind once, though, to throw a complete game because when you face such a great offense as Anaheim, you never think this. I was just thinking, 'Get the W.' After the fifth inning, I started concentrating more on the batters and that is where my strength came.

"When you face Anaheim, you can't think of a complete game. You might call it lucky, you might call it great, but we stepped up. And I'm glad I got to be a part of this."

When you think of what Jose Contreras has done for the Chicago White Sox over the last three months, you should be more likely to call it great.

Mike Bauman is the national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.