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Contreras is in the thick of a rivalry again

NEW YORK -- He knew nothing of the rivalry, he said, when he was still in Cuba pitching for Fidel Castro, the man who might know a thing or two about a true evil empire.

But ever since last Christmas Eve, when there was no room at the inn for the New York Yankees because the Red Sox had bought up all the rooms, Jose Contreras has quickly been brought up to speed on the intense feelings that exist between the two teams that competed for his services, and are now battling each other for the American League pennant.

"Once I was declared a free agent and those two teams were bidding to sign me, maybe I realized what a big rivalry it is," Contreras said last night after coming out of the bullpen to record four outs in the Yankees' 6-2 win over the Sox in Game 2 of the ALCS. "And since I've been playing in the games, especially in the playoffs, they have been well-fought games and as we move forward, they'll probably get tighter and tighter."

The Yankees won the bidding for Contreras, awarding a four-year $32 million contract for the Cuban defector and inspiring Larry Lucchino to cast Boss Steinbrenner in the role of Darth Vader. And now Contreras, finally growing acclimated to a new life as a Yanqui while still mourning the absence of the people he held so dear in his former life -- such as his wife and father -- is doing his part to tilt the balance of power in this series in the Yankees' favor.

He was dominating in a mopup ninth inning in Game 1, striking out Nomar Garciaparra, David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar, and last night, with the stakes ratcheted higher, he needed just one pitch to set down Garciaparra on a pop fly to first baseman Nick Johnson with a runner on first, two outs in the seventh, and the Yankees ahead by two runs, 4-2.

When the Yankees tacked on a couple of runs in the bottom of the seventh, manager Joe Torre abandoned the idea of bringing in his closer, Mariano Rivera, and stayed with Contreras, who whiffed Manny Ramirez, buzzed David Ortiz with a head-high fastball before inducing him to pop up, and got Kevin Millar on a popup to Derek Jeter.

"It gave me a lot of satisfaction and confidence as a pitcher that they believe in me and trust in me in a tight situation," Contreras said. "I'll be a little more at ease when I go into a game."

Contreras's fastball last night was clocked at 97 miles an hour, a speed he'd only occasionally reached earlier in the season. His split-fingered fastball was darting out of the strike zone with a crispness and authority that also was lacking earlier, when he failed in an audition as a starter and was unimpressive out of the pen, too.

"He's throwing great now," said Luis Eljaua, the Red Sox director of international scouting who had tried to freeze out the Yankees in December by claiming all available space in the Nicaragua hotel in which Contreras and his agent, Jose Torres, were holed up while sorting through bids from the Sox, Yankees, and Seattle Mariners.

Eljaua had spent months cultivating a relationship with Contreras, back when he was starring for the Cuban national team and in the aftermath of his defection last September in Mexico. The men had become good friends. Contreras had tears in his eyes when he informed Eljaua that he was signing with the Yankees instead of the Sox.

"I wish him well," said Eljaua, who was here last night to watch the one that got away, "but obviously I wish he was in our rotation. We're probably lucky he's not in their rotation."

George Steinbrenner typically doesn't pay his setup men $8 million a year, so the plan going into spring training was for Contreras to start. But the homesick pitcher, distressed at the serious illness of his father and the separation from his wife, struggled in camp, opened the season in the bullpen, and lasted just a couple of weeks before being sent to the minors. Upon his recall May 20, he was lit up by the Red Sox and took the loss in relief, allowing five runs on two hits and three walks.

Then in June, he went on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder and stayed there for more than two months. During that time, Steinbrenner ordered Billy Connors, the former pitching coach who now serves as the team's vice president of player personnel, to make Contreras his personal project at the team's complex in Tampa.

Whether it was because he came back healthy or that Connors put him back together, Contreras was a different pitcher upon his return. The 32-year-old righthander pitched seven scoreless innings against the Orioles in his first game back, allowing just three hits, and while the Sox pounded him again, 10-5, on Aug. 29, he finished the season on a roll, striking out a career-high nine batters in eight scoreless innings against the White Sox.

"Those two months in Tampa helped a lot," Contreras said. "My arm got stronger, and my mechanics got better."

Last night, he said, he planned to call his wife, who is still in Cuba. By the time he gets through, he said, he expects that she will have already learned of the outcome of last night's game. There are friends and neighbors, he said, who find a way to watch the game on TV or listen on the radio.

And by this morning, when Cubans are enjoying their first cafe con leche?

"Tomorrow," he said with a smile, "entire Cuba will be talking about tonight's game."

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