Kontos saved his best for last

Fifth-round pick justified Yankees' faith in NYPL playoffs

(George Napolitano)

November 27, 2006 2:26 PM

For George Kontos, winner of MiLB.com's Short-Season Playoff Performer Award, the New York-Penn League postseason was the culmination of a very long 2006 campaign.

The 21-year-old right-hander began the year as a member of Northwestern University's rotation. In 16 starts with the Wildcats, Kontos went 3-10 with a 5.29 ERA. Over 95 1/3 innings, he struck out 84 batters while walking 53. He also uncorked 23 wild pitches.

But, as is so often the case, statistics do not tell the full story. The New York Yankees, impressed by Kontos' 94 mph fastball and biting slider, selected him in the fifth round of the First-Year Player Draft. The organization had been impressed by his performance in the Cape Cod League in 2005 and believed Kontos would benefit greatly from a change of scenery, quality coaching and, of course, the absence of aluminum bats.

The Yankees were right.

Kontos signed with the club and immediately was dispatched to the Staten Island Yankees. In 14 starts with the "Baby Bombers," he went 7-3 with a 2.64 ERA and 82 strikeouts over 78 1/3 innings and just 19 walks.

"I felt fine the whole season. In the pros, my velocity dropped a little as the season wore on, but my location was much better," said Kontos. "I think what helped me the most was that the Yankees were so laid-back. In college, if you did one thing wrong the coaches were all over your back. But, in Staten Island the coaches would just be in the dugout taking notes."

The coaching staff's relaxed approach contributed to team-wide success. Staten Island captured the McNamara Division title with a league-best 45-29 record, then went on to face the wild card-winning Brooklyn Cyclones in the best-of-3 first-round playoff series.

Kontos got the nod in Game 1 and did not disappoint. He allowed two runs on six hits over six innings as the Yankees defeated the Cyclones, 5-2. Staten Island swept Brooklyn out of the playoffs the next day, earning the right to play the Tri-City ValleyCats for the NYPL championship.

The teams split the first two games, setting up a winner-take-all showdown in Staten Island.

Not surprisingly, Kontos was chosen to take the hill for the Yankees. Opposing him was ValleyCats ace Chris Salamida, who had been virtually unhittable all year. The 22-year-old southpaw went 10-1 with a microscopic 1.06 ERA during the regular season, then hurled six scoreless innings in Tri-City's Game 1 win over Auburn in the first round of the playoffs. Salamida's impressive stats did little to faze Kontos, however.

"I didn't think much about Salamida because it was the Tri-City hitters I was really going up against," he said. "I knew it was going to be a low-scoring game, but we had the best hitting team in the league. I wasn't worried about us scoring some runs."

And that offense came through as Staten Island's Kyle Larsen managed to drive in runs in the first and third innings to give Kontos all he needed. He scattered five hits and three walks over six shutout innings with a career-high 11 strikeouts as the Yankees hung on for a 2-0 win.

"It was my most memorable baseball experience by far," he said. "I was ready to pitch and I wanted the ball, and just tried my best to approach it like a normal game."

It wasn't always pretty, but Kontos' exhilarating performance earned him his second postseason win in as many starts.

Kontos' biggest challenge came with two outs in the sixth inning. After loading the bases on two singles and a walk, Kontos ran the count to 3-0 on Christopher Johnson.

"I realized I was flying open on my glove side, which was causing everything to be high," he said. "So I stepped back, took a couple of deep breaths and threw a strike. That gave me more confidence, but I think my next pitch might have been ball four if he hadn't swung at it. Then, on a full count, he popped out to second base."

And with that daring escape act, Kontos' night -- and season -- ended. Nicholas Peterson and Max Sapp combined to toss three scoreless frames as the Yankees took home the championship trophy for the fourth time in their eight-year team history.

"I was bouncing off the walls after they took me out. I was so psyched and just had so much energy," he said. "I changed into some cleaner clothes and then watched the rest of the game from the dugout. I knew that Peterson and Melancon would close it out. They'd been doing it for us all year."

All told, Kontos went 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 16 strikeouts in two postseason starts. His long 2006 season, in which he went from an underachieving college pitcher to a young professional on top of his game, can best be summed up by an old cliche: "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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