BY KEN DAVIDOFF | STAFF WRITER | Newsday
It was an odd development, yet one that best suited the Yankees in their new life, the one that began Tuesday.
Jose Contreras picked up his victory before Derek Jeter picked up his hit.
Jeter’s quest for liberation from his slump became a mere sideshow last night, as the Yankees pushed their captain’s struggles aside and rode Contreras’ improved effort to a 5-1 victory over Oakland.
“It’s definitely tough to have three or four games that aren’t very good,” Contreras said through interpreter Leo Astacio. “This helps me erase a lot of those memories.”
Their second straight victory—in the wake of their embarrassing weekend home sweep at the hands of hated rival Boston—pulled the Yankees to 10-11. Tonight, with Kevin Brown going against Barry Zito, the Yankees will go for both the series sweep and the .500 mark while Jeter tries to escape his 0-for-32 vortex.
Brown against Zito is a far more favorable pitching matchup for the Yankees than last night’s appeared to be. Yet when the Yankees tallied three first-inning runs against Oakland’s elite lefthander Mark Mulder (2-2), Contreras (1-2) did what Mike Mussina couldn’t on Tuesday. He protected the lead, putting aside his first three starts, all awful.
It was hardly a dominant outing by the Yankees’ righthander, as he required 105 pitches to get through six innings. But Contreras, using the same shortened delivery that resulted in an 11-2 loss to the Red Sox on Friday, scattered four hits and a walk over that time, striking out four and lowering his ERA from 10.64 to 7.41.
The outing was easily his best of the season and offered a smidgen of encouragement that Contreras might actually help the Yankees more than hurt them this year. George Steinbrenner has been extremely distressed about Contreras’ problems.
“It’s a work in progress,” Joe Torre said. “But this was a big first step.”
“He’s got to see the video,” catcher Jorge Posada said of Contreras. “Not just tomorrow, but over and over and over and over again.”
Tom Gordon pitched the final two innings to record his first save as a Yankee.
For all of the chatter about Contreras’ mechanics, it has been his lack of aggressiveness, his hesitance to use his explosive fastball more, that has bothered the team most. Yesterday, Posada insisted to him: “Let me call your game.”
Contreras began with a 1-2-3 first inning—just as he kicked off his previous start. One crucial difference: The Yankees used the bottom of the first to give Contreras a 3-0 lead.
Jason Giambi (who had three hits, including a homer) and Gary Sheffield delivered RBI singles, and Ruben Sierra, Tuesday’s star, added a sacrifice fly.
After Contreras threw a perfect second inning, he served up a leadoff homer to Bobby Crosby in the third. Frank Menechino added a one-out single, and when Contreras fell behind Mark Kotsay, 2-and-0, he received a mound visit from pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
“I just told him to stay aggressive,” Stottlemyre said.
Kotsay popped up to leftfield, but Bobby Kielty walked, bringing the lead run to the plate in Eric Chavez. The A’s best player smoked a line drive toward rightfield. Incredibly, the defensively limited Giambi dove to his right and caught it, ending the rally.
Posada scalded a solo homer to centerfield—his American League-best eighth—in the bottom of the third, boosting the Yankees’ lead to 4-1. And Stottlemyre didn’t need to leave the dugout again until the top of the sixth, when a one-out wild pitch to Jermaine Dye advanced Kielty from first base to second. At that point, Stottlemyre advised Contreras that he was in his final inning, so he should “empty the tank.”
Contreras rebounded to strike out Dye, and he picked up Scott Hatteberg’s nubber down the first-base line and tagged Hatteberg to end his evening with a flourish.
The key, Contreras conceded afterward, was his aggressiveness.
“I was able to get ahead of the batters, and that allowed me to go after them more,” he said.
That means for the next five days, The Boss will go after Contreras less.