NEW YORK -- Four and a half years later, the Orioles' inability to hit against an amateur pitcher from Cuba didn't look so bad, and the New York Yankees were starting to view Jose Contreras in a different light, too.
Contreras dominated the Orioles for seven innings yesterday, much as he did in an exhibition game for the Cuban national team in March 1999.
This time, he was making his first career start at Yankee Stadium, as was Orioles rookie Eric DuBose, and New York breezed to a 7-0 victory after getting a three-run homer by Jorge Posada in the first inning.
For the Orioles, the loss broke a four-game winning streak and left them with that ominous feeling that comes each time a division rival adds another top-flight player.
"I can see why [the Yankees] think so highly of him," Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons said.
Up until yesterday, the merits of the Contreras signing were still relatively uncertain. He defected from Cuba in October, and the Yankees swooped in -- as they always seem to do -- signing him to a four-year, $32 million contract.
But Contreras didn't even make the starting rotation coming out of spring training. The Yankees put him in the bullpen, and he posted an 8.74 ERA in eight relief appearances.
In two starts against the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds, Contreras was much better, going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA, but the Yankees still weren't sure what to think. Contreras pitched those games tentatively, shying away from his fastball, and he wound up going on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder.
Contreras missed 67 games but made a seamless return yesterday, holding the Orioles to three hits and a walk while striking out five. The performance thrust him back into a competition with the ailing David Wells to start a potential Game 4 in the playoffs behind Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
"I'm seeing a different Jose Contreras than I did the first time he was here," said Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
Showing a 96-mph fastball and a forkball that kept the Orioles baffled all afternoon, Contreras had one of those blissful days for a pitcher when he almost never seemed to miss.
"I'm completely healthy," Contreras said. "Today, I was able to use all my pitches and throw the ball where I wanted to when I needed to."
The Orioles really didn't know what to expect. Collectively, they had very little memory of their previous two encounters with Contreras.
On March 28, 1999, they had played an exhibition game with the Cubans in Havana, and Contreras stole the show with his eight-inning, two-hit, 10-strikeout relief performance. The Orioles averted some international embarrassment by winning in 11 innings, 3-2.
Then, on May 3, 1999, the Cubans came to Camden Yards and defeated the Orioles in another exhibition game, 12-6. That time, Contreras was shaky even if his teammates were not, as the Orioles chased him from the game by the second inning.
Orioles designated hitter B.J. Surhoff remembered having two plate appearances against Contreras in the March 1999 exhibition, and one was an intentional walk. Other than that, no one in the clubhouse had ever faced Contreras, so the hitters glanced at some videotape and took their chances.
It wasn't a pretty sight. In the first inning, Luis Matos reached second base, when Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter fielded a routine grounder and short-hopped the throw past first baseman Nick Johnson.
With two outs, Jeff Conine singled, and Matos tried to score, but right fielder Juan Rivera nailed him at the plate with a one-hop throw.
That "changed the whole tide," Surhoff said.
DuBose said he didn't have any extra jitters making his first start in the Bronx, but it sure seemed that way. The Yankees sealed his fate with a clutch two-out hit in each of the first two innings: Posada's three-run homer in the first, and Jeter's two-run single in the second.
Orioles manager Mike Hargrove pulled DuBose after 2 1/3 innings, and the Yankees had their 7-0 lead after the third.
"You can't pitch in this league or any other league without throwing fastballs for strikes," DuBose said. "And I wasn't able to do that today."
Contreras had command of everything, and he left another lasting imprint with the Orioles in the seventh inning. All afternoon, he had used an array of speeds with his forkball, which tantalizes hitters by starting in the strike zone but usually ends up near the dirt.
Then, with a 2-2 count to Gibbons in the seventh, Contreras tossed a 78-mph forkball, which was slower and more menacing than anything he threw all day. It reduced the Popeyed-armed Gibbons into taking an Olive Oyl swing for strike three.
"It had a little knuckleball action to it," Gibbons said. "It was kind of a strange pitch. ... It looked like a curveball, and all of a sudden it's 78 or 77 mph. It was almost like an eephus pitch. I tipped it, and that was good enough for me."
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Damian Moss (1-1, 3.70) vs. Yankees' Andy Pettitte (15-7, 4.12)