TUCSON, Ariz. -- To revert back to his almost unhittable form in the second half of the 2005 season and first half of the 2006 campaign, Jose Contreras might need the help of a time machine or at least some old videotape.
The White Sox don't need Contreras to match his franchise record of 17 straight winning decisions in order to be successful in 2008. They simply need him to pitch as he has been this spring, with confidence, a rise in velocity and the return of a split-finger matched by few hurlers in baseball.
"Last year we had to go with his fastball," said White Sox catcher Toby Hall of Contreras, talking with a group of reporters after the two worked together during Monday's 3-1 loss to the Mariners in Peoria.
"This year, throwing 3-0 sliders, 3-2 sliders, 3-2 changeups, ahead in the count, throwing splits, he's a whole different horse out there," Hall added.
Contreras gave up hits to the first three batters he faced on Monday, with Raul Ibanez's double being the hardest hit of the group. But Contreras settled down to yield only three runs on six hits over 5 2/3 innings, fanning six and walking two.
His last exhibition start comes on Saturday in Memphis, facing the Mets in the Civil Rights Game. He then begins traveling the 2008 comeback trail in the series opener at Comerica Park on April 4, weather permitting.
It's one start among 32 or 33 for Contreras, or so the White Sox hope. It also marks a crucial spot in the rotation, between young hurlers John Danks and Gavin Floyd, which ultimately could be one of the deciding factors in this season's outcome.
There's no reason for Contreras to be perfect, just consistent once again, putting the 26 losses since the 2006 All-Star break as a distant memory.
"I talked to him after his outing, and he was excited by the way he threw the ball," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen of Contreras. "We're still talking to him -- try to be more aggressive early in the game.
"During the last two starts, he kind of struggled to find the plate early. After that, he settled down and did a good job. If he throws like that, he's got a chance to win more games and our club will be better."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.