By JOHN SEEWER, Associated Press Writer
Columbus Clippers pitcher Jose Contreras throws a during the fourth inning, Tuesday, April 29, 2003, against the Toledo Mud Hens in Toledo, Ohio. Contreras started his first game with the Clippers since being demoted by the New York Yankees (news). He had eight strike outs and gave up three hits over five innings. (AP Photo/J.D. Pooley)
TOLEDO, Ohio - Jose Contreras was relaxed and effective away from New York.
The Cuban right-hander struck out eight and allowed three hits and no runs over five innings Tuesday, pitching the Triple-A Columbus Clippers to a 7-1 win over Toledo in his first minor league start.
Contreras, who signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the Yankees but struggled in the bullpen, overpowered Mud Hens hitters. His fastball topped out at 98 mph, and he consistently threw in the mid-90s.
Contreras said the biggest difference since being demoted was being away from the pressure in New York.
“I was able to relax and find myself,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s a little different because you don’t have the pressure of the game. In New York, the goal is to win every game.”
Contreras was ineffective as a reliever for the Yankees, going 1-0 with a 10.80 ERA in five appearances, and he was demoted so he could get more chances to pitch.
Only once did he get in a jam against the Mud Hens, giving up a leadoff double to Kevin Witt in the second inning.
Witt moved to third on a groundout, and Contreras went to work, striking out Danny Klassen on three pitches and then striking out Cody Ross to end the threat.
Contreras said it felt good to start.
“I’m a natural starter,” he said. “I was able to come out with a game plan and make all my pitches.”
Toledo had only a handful of good swings on Contreras, who threw just 71 pitches before coming out.
The former ace of the Cuban National Team gave up a single to Witt in the fourth and Klassen singled to right in the fifth.
Clippers manager Bucky Dent said the key for Contreras was throwing strikes early in the count.
“I just think facing hitters and getting into a rhythm is important,” Dent said.
Contreras will get another start Sunday, Dent said.
His development has become a major priority for the Yankees’ front office.
Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Gordon Blakeley and vice president and pitching instructor Billy Connors watch Contreras closely from the stands.
Contreras threw in two simulated games before making his first start since spring training.
His assignment prompted a dispute between owner George Steinbrenner and manager Joe Torre.
Torre had told Contreras that he would be sent to Columbus. The manager was then surprised to learn that Steinbrenner has assigned Contreras to the team’s minor league complex. Torre thought the decision was his to make.