"When you get off the plane, the man himself, Fidel, is waiting for you," said Contreras of pitching for Cuba, through translator Oney Guillen, where he posted a 117-50 mark with a 2.82 ERA. "If you win, you win. If we don't, you have to respond to him what happened."
Contreras won't have to face that sort of nation-wide pressure come April 2, when the White Sox begin the 2007 season at home against the Indians. Instead, Contreras can enjoy a true career milestone via his first start on Opening Day.
Mark Buehrle held this particular White Sox honor for each of the last five seasons, but over the course of the 2006 campaign, Contreras emerged as the staff ace out of a group of four very talented hurlers. The big right-hander set the club record with a stretch of 17 consecutive winning decisions, lasting from Aug. 21, 2005 until July 14, 2006, and was selected for his first All-Star Game in Pittsburgh last July 11.
Since joining the White Sox in a trade that sent Esteban Loaiza to New York in 2004, a move that many pundits believe favored the Yankees at the time, Contreras has posted a 33-20 record overall in 75 starts. General manager Ken Williams credits Contreras for his personal growth as a pitcher, while Contreras returns the compliment to the team.
"He's worked his [butt] off," said Williams of Contreras. "I like to say that all of our coaches and all the players we have, we are all in this together and help each other out. But more than anything, Jose just worked his [butt] off."
"Ever since the first day here, I've felt a part of this team," Contreras added. "That's the way they made me feel. That's the way the manager made me feel and my teammates. I love the fans and I especially love the city of Chicago."
Although his short stint in New York, covering 36 games, didn't live up to his much ballyhooed arrival from Cuba, Contreras has nothing but positive words in describing his time with the Yankees. The main difference between his stint in New York and his rise in Chicago seems to be the freedom to use his distinct style of pitching.
Whereas the Yankees felt Contreras featured his devastating split-finger too often and they didn't want him throwing from different angles, the White Sox allowed him to work with the form and delivery options that made him one of Cuba's greatest pitchers.
"When I came here, the manager basically told me pitch the way you know how to pitch, and let me know when you have a problem," Contreras said. "He also told me I'm going to be out there every fifth day."
"Jose is tough because of all those different arm angles, especially righty on righty," added White Sox backup catcher Toby Hall, who is 5-for-17 lifetime against Contreras with one home run and three RBIs. "If there was any success I had against him, I would eliminate that pitch inside and try to hit that other stuff. But like I've said before, I would rather catch him than face him."
For a man who takes such great pride in his work, for a man who took part in Cuba's 152-game winning streak during international competition, getting traded from the Yankees represented a sort of personal failure in Contreras' mind. The trade actually happened one week after his wife, Miriam, and two daughters came to the United States from Cuba, taking Contreras from a sense of euphoria to one of crushing defeat, by his own admission.
But that trade ended up being the best thing that could have happened for Contreras' Major League career. He had the chance to spin the clinching complete-game effort against the Angels in the 2005 American League Championship Series and won the World Series opener against Houston. Being part of the White Sox title run became the greatest moment of his storied career.
"I've pitched in a lot of big games in Cuba and pitched in two Olympics, where we've won one and lost one," Contreras said. "But there's nothing that compares to the playoffs in the Major Leagues.
"The experience I had against Boston, Anaheim and in the World Series, it's the greatest experience I've ever had. It's something I'll never forget."
Now, Contreras has become a mentor amongst the White Sox young pitchers, tutoring up-and-coming prospect Adam Russell this spring, with Russell featuring the same sort of wide array of arm angles as Contreras. Contreras credits Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez and Freddy Garcia as veterans who provided him guidance while in Chicago.
In the long run, though, Contreras simply has found a home in the relaxed atmosphere of Ozzie Guillen's clubhouse. And Contreras will work within that comfort zone during his season debut against the Indians.
"I was surprised because of the caliber of pitchers they have here in [Jon] Garland and Buehrle," said Contreras of starting on Opening Day. "But I'm very excited and I'm going to work hard and do the job.
"Our other starters have the same talent and same chance of winning every other day. After Opening Day, it doesn't really matter. Right now, though, when I go to the mound, I think I'm going to win and never fail."
CLE: LHP C.C. Sabathia (12-11, 3.22 ERA)
White Sox probable lineup|
Sabathia certainly lived up to his ace tag last season, despite missing the first month with an oblique strain suffered Opening Day. He went 12-11 with a 3.22 ERA, including a Major League-high six complete games. That ability to consistently put the Tribe in a position to win is precisely what the Indians ask of the big left-hander. They'll also ask him to stay healthy and avoid the oblique injuries that plagued him the last two years. In '06, Sabathia became just the second pitcher in club history to post double-digit win totals in the first six years of his career, joining Hall of Famer Addie Joss.
CWS: RHP Jose Contreras (13-9, 4.27 ERA in 2006)
The right-hander makes his first Opening Day start and seems fit and ready to perform after struggling with back and hamstring issues at the end of 2006. Contreras holds the franchise record for consecutive winning decisions at 17, ranging from Aug. 21, 2005 to July 4, 2006, and possesses one of the best split-fingers in the game. The 35-year-old struck out 134 batters last year and has the ability to run his fastball in the mid-90s. Contreras holds a 2-0 record with a 2.98 ERA lifetime against the Indians and has a 16-9 career mark at U.S. Cellular Field.
Player to watch
Pablo Ozuna gets the Opening Day start in left field and in the leadoff spot primarily because of his past success against Sabathia. The right-handed hitting Ozuna has nine hits in 23 career at-bats against the massive left-hander, with three doubles and two RBIs.
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Official game notes
Wednesday: Indians (RHP Jake Westbrook, 15-10, 4.17 in 2007) at White Sox (RHP Jon Garland, 18-7, 4.51 in 2007), 1:05 p.m. CT
Thursday: Indians (LHP Jeremy Sowers, 7-4, 3.57 in 2007) at White Sox (LHP Mark Buehrle, 12-13, 4.99 in 2007), 1:05 p.m. CT