CLEVELAND — Jake Westbrook spent the early part of his career as a nibbler. Without complete trust in his stuff, he would aim for the corners and away from the bats, as if he were afraid of contact.On Monday night, in the most important start of his career, Westbrook was an attacker. He pounded the strike zone, got ahead in the count and pitched without fear. At the most crucial moments, against the best Red Sox hitters, Westbrook stood the tallest.
He was the biggest factor in the Indians’ 4-2 win, as they maintained home-field advantage and took a 2-1 lead in the ALCS. He did what C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona failed to do in Games 1 and 2.
“For Jake to get us that deep in the ballgame and have control of the ballgame the way he did, that’s something we needed,” manager Eric Wedge said.
Westbrook went 62/3 innings, allowing two runs on seven hits and three walks in his second postseason start. He struck out two, throwing 66 strikes in 104 pitches.
His only mistake was a 2-2 fastball that catcher Jason Varitek drove over the center-field fence in the seventh to cut the lead from 4-0 to 4-2.
Westbrook’s best pitch has always been his sinker. That’s never been truer than in Game 3 when, consistently at 93 with good movement, he got 15 of his 20 outs on groundballs. That included three double plays that killed rallies, retained momentum and kept the crowd enthused.
“I felt like he was aggressive and worked ahead,” Wedge said. “When you have the ability to get two outs in one pitch, that goes a long way.”
The double play is every pitcher’s best friend, and Westbrook wouldn’t have been the same without a little help from his friends, figurative and literal.
After walking Kevin Youkilis in the first, Westbrook got David Ortiz to hit a rocket on the ground toward right field. Asdrubal Cabrera – he had an RBI single – stabbed it and threw toward second base as he was falling away. Third baseman Casey Blake, who was the closest to second because of the shift for Ortiz, reached low for the throw and made a quick turn in his best Omar Vizquel impersonation. Ryan Garko completed the four-part harmony with a nifty scoop and stretch at first.
“That’s about as good a double play as you’re gonna see,” Wedge said.
A double play also extricated Westbrook from his thickest jam in the second.
After a Garko error loaded the bases, Westbrook got Varitek to hit a shallow fly to Kenny Lofton – he hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning – in left. Then the fleet-footed Coco Crisp hit a tailor-made chopper to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who stepped on second and fired to first.
“I can’t say enough about the defense behind me,” Westbrook said. “It was fun to be a sinkerball pitcher tonight.”
Westbrook faced just one batter over the minimum over the next three innings as the Tribe built the 4-0 lead and the fans tried to master the difficult task of clapping and waving the white rally towels at the same time. Then in the sixth, he summoned the courage the Indians counted on when they signed him to a three-year, $33 million contract extension during the season.
Youkilis lined a single up the middle and Ortiz walked, bringing up Manny Ramirez, who had reached base twice Monday and in 17 of 25 plate appearances in the postseason. But after falling behind 3-0, Westbrook threw a strike near the outside corner, got two foul balls and a routine 6-4-3 double play.
The only thing the jilted Cleveland fans like better than a Ramirez strikeout is a Ramirez double play.
“To come back and get a double play was huge,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook had done his job. Six-plus innings and turn it over to what’s developed into a lockdown bullpen – even with Joe Borowski. Westbrook had borrowed a page from the pen, which has been pounding the strike zone all series.
He also eased the mind of all those nervous Tribe fans already thinking ahead to a possible Game 7 in Fenway Park. Wedge ignored the idea of bringing back Sabathia today on three days rest so he would be available on normal rest for Game 7.
That leaves Westbrook as the Tribe’s man if one game is necessary to decide who gets to play in the World Series. After Monday night, that sounds just fine.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.