Contreras' Minor League stint pays off
Right-hander dazzles teammates with return effort
CHICAGO -- Give White Sox catcher Ramon Castro high marks for pure honesty following his team's 6-1 victory over the Tigers during the night portion of Monday's split doubleheader at U.S. Cellular Field.
The clubhouse question put before the backup backstop was as follows: What did he know about Jose Contreras prior to the right-hander's amazing one-hit effort over eight innings to help the White Sox earn a Monday split?
"Nothing," Castro said with a smile.
Well here's a little fill-in information for Castro to get up to speed.
Contreras, the owner of a South Siders' franchise-best 17-game winning streak that carried over from Aug. 21, 2005, to July 4, 2006, made an incredible comeback from a ruptured left Achilles suffered at home against Boston on Aug. 9, 2008, to begin this season as part of the White Sox starting rotation. The heartwarming story takes a temporary detour at this point.
After five losses in six starts and an ERA of 8.19, Contreras was presented with a move to the bullpen by general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen. The right-handed veteran temporary put his pride aside as an All-Star and bona-fide playoff hero to come up with an alternative solution.
"I said, 'How am I going to help the team in the bullpen? I need to work on my pitches and my location. The only place I can do it is Triple-A,'" said Contreras, through interpreter Ozzie Guillen Jr. following Monday's sparkling mound work in which he fanned three and walked one. "So, I decided to go down there and work on my stuff. It paid off with a great outing."
During this work rehabilitation program with Charlotte, Contreras made starts against Scranton Wilkes-Barre, Toledo and Indianapolis and twice against Columbus. Wilkin Ramirez, a top Detroit prospect playing at Toledo, said Contreras was better than Clay Buchholz or Daisuke Matsuzaka when they faced him. Contreras also rediscovered his confidence, gained back the strength he was missing from an abbreviated Spring Training workload due to the injury through extended pitch counts, and most of all, found control of his devastating split-finger out pitch.
Another realization came to Contreras while he was pitching for the Knights. Contreras heard about comments made by teammate and Cuban countrymen Alexei Ramirez in a MLB.com article addressing how much he was missed and how deeply the shortstop was hurt when he saw Contreras so emotional after his last big league outing before Monday, on May 8 at home against Texas.
A support system was rooting for Contreras and waiting for him to return in Chicago.
"That interview Alexei had really inspired me," Contreras said. "It showed how much Alexei cared for me and the team missed me, in the clubhouse and having me around. Having five losses without getting a win, I felt like I hadn't contributed. Now, I feel like I'm back and giving something to the team."
Ramirez believed that Contreras' effort on Monday inspired the struggling White Sox.
"I'm really glad to have Jose around," said Ramirez, through interpreter Guillen Jr. "I really missed him on and off the field."
More chapters will be told in this Contreras tale, although manager Guillen wouldn't officially commit to a day for Contreras' next start, despite stating Contreras earned that spot and had the best split-finger he had seen from him in quite some time. Meanwhile, Castro left with a bit more knowledge concerning Contreras' body of work.
Prior to Monday night's start, Castro talked with Orlando Hernandez to get some information on what to expect from El Duque's friend. Those words of wisdom didn't do justice to Contreras' encore performance.
"My opinion was just unbelievable today," said Castro, who earned plaudits from Contreras for the way he called the game. "From the bullpen [warmup on], he was great, [had] life on the ball. He threw basically everything. We followed a plan and it worked."
Castro's final words ring true behind Contreras' decision to return to the Minors.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.