Three years after a San Diego Rule 5 Draft selection of Ivan Nova accelerated his development, turning him from a pitcher who hadn’t escaped High-A to big leaguer by 2010, Scranton Yankees reliever George Kontos seems to be on a similar path.
Kontos, a 26-year-old righty who had spent five seasons in the Yankees organization, was a low-risk, high-reward selection by the Padres. But ultimately, he didn’t stick and was returned to the Yankees per Rule 5 protocol. While the numbers certainly weren’t what he would have hoped for them to be, the Illinois-born pitcher, who had never been one to be short on confidence, seemed to actually gain more of it after his taste of the big leagues.
“Spring training, going over there and getting to experience that whole process, it was definitely a good experience,” Kontos said.
“Obviously, I would have liked to have pitch a little bit better and been given a little bit more of an opportunity and stuck with the team. But the fact that I was able to go over there and kind of experience that whole thing, it was a great opportunity for me and it definitely showed me that even though my numbers weren’t that great in the couple outings that I had, I could definitely pitch against Major League hitters and get them out. That was the main thing. So I came back this year with tons of confidence, and I think that’s kind of shown as the season has progressed.”
But, while there was confidence that came with Kontos’ stay with San Diego, there were also some adjustments that he had to make after coming to the realization that his road to the big leagues had yet another detour.
“Going back to our spring training was a little bit difficult. It was definitely humbling coming in and seeing all the guys again and coming back,” he said.
“But once we broke camp and got up here, I think it was just normal again. Maybe the first couple days of getting back and seeing all the guys was tough in a way, but everyone made me feel real comfortable. It stunk that I was back because of what could have been, but it was good to be back and see the guys and be back here.”
Kontos seemed to be well on his way to a future in pinstripes as starter, escaping a 2008 nixed-trade that would have dealt him to the Pirates in the process. Despite a 6-11 record, Kontos established himself as someone to watch in the organization after posting a 3.68 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A Trenton, striking out 152 batters in as many innings of work.
He began the 2009 season back with Trenton, but wasn’t long for Waterfront Park, being called up to Triple-A Scranton after just four starts with the Thunder. He’d make nine with Scranton — seemingly getting closer to the big leagues with each one – before his elbow gave out on him. He’d need Tommy John surgery and missed 11 months, coming back as a reliever. Kontos struggled at times with command, and was inconsistent in Trenton at times despite posting solid numbers in the end.
But this year has been different, leading Kontos to say the difference between last season and this season has been like “night and day.” In 27 appearances in Scranton — Kontos has been used in just about every role possible by Dave Miley this season, including two spot starts — he’s posted a 2-1 record and 2.26 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings of work, while walking just 17 International League batters.
“Last year, coming back to Trenton after surgery, I was kind of just feeling everything out again,” Kontos said.
“Like everybody told me, the second season after surgery is when you really kind of get everything back. So far, that’s been the case. I’ve come back this year and things have fallen into place. My location is significantly better than it was last year, and my velocity is much better than it was last year. The slider’s still the same as it’s been, and my changeup’s developed really well into a good, usable pitch for me. So things have been going really, really well.”
Despite the obvious physical adjustments that come after such a procedure, Kontos credits his turnaround of sorts to changing his mental approach.
“I think it’s just kind of trusting your stuff,” he said. “Just being mentally capable to realize that you’re OK to go back to doing what you did before the surgery, that’s the main thing. Once you come back from surgery, you’re healthy, but there’s kind of like a mental hurdle that you’ve got to just kind of overcome until you’re back at it 100 percent.”
While Kontos has shown that he’s back to 100 percent, pitching better than he ever has with the Yankees organization, he’s still yet to escape Dunder Mifflin headquarters. But, while the franchise has added seemingly everyone under the sun to the big league roster but Kontos and added countless options from outside the organization at Triple-A, he’s been able to remain patient and knows his time will come.
“It’s definitely encouraging to see that the organization is going down to the farm to get some guys, and it’s also a little frustrating because I’m putting up good numbers,” Kontos said.
“But at the same time, I think it kind of lights a fire under me and makes me want to pitch as well as I can so I can get my opportunity.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com