Contreras now shining in spotlight

Contreras grows comfortable under spotlight

CHICAGO -- This is why the Yankees got him. This is why the Red Sox lusted after him. So the big Cuban expatriate could stand on the lip of baseball's biggest stage, ready to set the tone for a World Series.

But when Jose Contreras, the right-hander who sparked the "Evil Empire" trash talk between Boston and New York, finally takes the mound to start a World Series game on Saturday, he will be doing it quite removed from the Eastern front -- whether measured in miles or mental anguish.

Contreras doesn't shy away from his manager's assessment of why he has found profound success on the South Side of Chicago, where winning is a pleasure, not a mandate.

Ozzie Guillen often says, as he did so again Friday morning, that Contreras was "so insecure" in New York.

"Jose, he don't want to let people down," Guillen added. "When he signed a big contract, people talked about how much money he made, he should win every game. And he thought he let a lot of people down."

It's a little different in a place that hasn't flown a World Series championship banner in 88 years. As Paul Konerko noted of the manager, "He'll be the first one to tell you, 'If we just lose, big deal, we tried. Go out, do your best and we'll have a laugh after, either way.'"

In this culture, Contreras said, "I have no pressure, and the confidence is very good. Ozzie and [pitching coach Don] Cooper have helped me very much on the mental side."

Not to say Contreras didn't have to earn that confidence, and it didn't come instantly. In fact, one of this postseason's compelling subplots is his rise to the top of the White Sox exceptional rotation.

With lengthy breaks between series -- three days before the Championship Series, five days before the World Series -- Guillen and Cooper could've lined up their starters any way they chose. But it was Contreras in Game 1 against the Angels, and it will again be him in Game 1 against the Astros.

This is a far cry from his midseason regard, when Chicago was so down on him, he had one foot in the South Side and the other on the outside. Following his first start after the All-Star Game, Contreras was 5-6 with a 4.34 ERA, more confounding to his manager than opposing hitters.

Then he began to buy into Cooper's philosophy: Work fast, throw strikes. And it clicked to the tune of 10 wins in his last 11 decisions, with a shrinking ERA.

"We had a lot of patience with him," Guillen said. "He'd take a lot of heat, I'd take a lot of heat and thank God we stayed with him."

The man who did not have a Major League complete game until his next-to-last start of the season again went the route in his Game 5 clincher against the Angels.

In that gem, Contreras threw 114 pitches. Three months earlier, he needed 116 to navigate 5 2/3 innings against the Red Sox; a month before that, 118 pitches only got him through six against Arizona.

That's the Cooper influence translating into confidence to challenge, not skirt, hitters in the strike zone.

"I just worked more on my mental and physical health," said Contreras, who still shudders when recalling the rumors that hounded him approaching the July 31 trading deadline. "The trade rumors were bothering me."

Their sting was a little too real. Only the year before, the Yankees had sent him here in a pre-deadline deal for Esteban Loaiza, a move which angered Contreras "because I had a lot of friends in New York."

He will be reunited with one of his Bronx buddies on Saturday, but across the great divide of a World Series duel. Roger Clemens, one of Contreras' earliest American mentors, will start Game 1 for Houston.

"Me and Roger had a very good relationship," Contreras said. "He taught me a lot of things. He taught me a couple of pitches -- in Cuba, I was throwing a two-seam fastball, and he taught me how to throw a four-seam fastball.

"We pitch mostly the same way, and just facing him is an honor. As good as he is, I wish I had him on my team, but too bad we have to face him."

It may really be too bad if Contreras loses his ideal release point, or the feel for a particular pitch. He will have one fewer watchdog on his side.

"Every time I did something wrong with my mechanics," Contreras recalled of the 2003 season he spent as Clemens' moundmate, "he helped me correct my errors."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.