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Contreras shows it can be done

Contreras shows it can be done

CHICAGO -- Perhaps Game 1 is a little too early to find a defining postseason performance, even in a five-game series. But we're going to make an exception in the case of Jose Contreras versus the Boston Red Sox.

The deal was, Jose Contreras would have never been pitching for the Chicago White Sox if he could have beaten the Red Sox when he was with the Yankees. The Yankees had outbid Boston for his services, and the irony was, as talented as everyone knew Contreras was, he couldn't help the Yanks beat the Red Sox. In his career against Boston, before this year, he was 1-4 with a 13.40 ERA.

But here he was, opening an American League Division Series for the White Sox against Boston. And if the series went the distance, he would pitch the decisive Game 5 as well. The White Sox, the team with the allegedly stronger pitching, were putting a lot of their eggs in the basket of a fellow with a history of problems against the Red Sox.

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No problem. In fact, terrific idea. This is the new and improved Jose Contreras. Everybody believed that he had the best raw stuff on even the impressive Chicago staff, but up until the middle of this season, the execution of that stuff had been erratic. That was before he went 11-2 in the second half with a 2.96 ERA.

This Jose Contreras handled the powerful Boston lineup as though it consisted of so many Kansas City Royals. When he left the mound after 7 2/3 innings Tuesday afternoon, he did so to a standing ovation from the 40,717 White Sox faithful at U.S. Cellular Field. He had limited the powerful Red Sox to two runs on eight hits, with no walks and six strikeouts.

And it was actually even better than that. A midsummer climate had descended on Chicago in early October. It was 85 degrees at game time. The wind was from the southwest at 14 mph, gusting to 18 mph. These conditions are hitters' conditions at U.S. Cellular. Any ball hit in the air has that following wind behind it, much more than a gentle breeze. On this kind of day, this park is a hitter's delight. Ask the Red Sox pitchers, who gave up five home runs.

But nobody hit home runs off Jose Contreras.

OK, the outcome was surprisingly one-sided. The Red Sox were the big boppers in this series. They had the thunder and lightning. But here were the White Sox, 14-2 winners. This defied the easy, conventional expectations for this series. The Red Sox were the ones who were supposed to win a 14-2 game. The White Sox were supposed to win a 3-2 game.

But this is the thing: The White Sox actually needed only three of those 14 runs. They stopped the mighty Red Sox attack. More precisely, Jose Contreras stopped the mighty Red Sox attack.

To the White Sox, this was business as usual, given the way Contreras pitched in the second half. "[If] you saw Jose the last couple of months, he threw the same way he did today," said manager Ozzie Guillen. "The way he was throwing, he was throwing strikes."

But to the Red Sox, the new Contreras was an unpleasant revelation. "We saw a much more mature pitcher," said manager Terry Francona. "I knew the run he's been on and today we found out why."

Francona said that in the past against the Red Sox, if Contreras got into trouble, he would either overthrow or would go predominantly to his split-fingered fastball, a pitch hitters can lay off in hitters' counts. Tuesday, Francona said, Contreras did not overthrow and he was mixing the splitter effectively in all counts, throwing plausible strikes with it.

Contreras, who did his postgame interview with his 5-year-old daughter, Naylenis, on his lap, has been asked numerous times about why his career blossomed now in Chicago, instead of earlier in New York. (He joined the Yankees in 2003 after defecting from Cuba.)

Maybe there shouldn't be a huge mystery about this. Although he is 33, this is only his second full season in the Majors. Contreras said that he felt extremely comfortable with the White Sox.

"I felt a confidence level from the managers and the players and the coaching staff since the first day I walked into the clubhouse," Contreras said through his interpreter, Ozzie Guillen Jr. "Everyone believed in me and had confidence in me. Even the language barrier, the manager speaks Spanish and he's my friend."

And Contreras simply has terrific stuff. When he can throw his mid-90s fastball to spots and then come back with offspeed pitches for strikes, you can see how he was 11-2 in the second half.

On Tuesday, Contreras didn't have to take his game to a higher level to win. But he did beat the Boston Red Sox in a Division Series opener. Maybe what will now reach a higher level is the recognition of just how good he is.

And for the White Sox, this is even bigger than feeling good about their chances, should this series go to five games. This is about the rest of the White Sox starters saying: "Hey, this can be done, even in the playoffs, even if those other guys are the defending champs, even with David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez."

People talk all the time about momentum, which, in baseball, is no better than your next starting pitcher. What might be better here is simply the example that was set. The Red Sox can be contained. Even in October. Even by a pitcher who had struggled mightily against them in the past.

For a White Sox team that is relatively short on postseason experience, this is a huge deal. Credit Jose Contreras with proving that it can be done, that a White Sox pitcher can contain the imposing Boston offense, even in October.

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

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