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Sink and swim

Low-baller Westbrook, rock-solid 'pen lift Tribe to win

Posted: Tuesday October 16, 2007 1:13AM; Updated: Tuesday October 16, 2007 1:22AM
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Jake Westbrook attacked the vaunted Red Sox lineup. throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 hitters and 21 of 28 total batters.
Jake Westbrook attacked the vaunted Red Sox lineup. throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 hitters and 21 of 28 total batters.
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CLEVELAND -- At 9:19 p.m. the white-towel waving faithful at Jacobs Field, which seems to glisten like a new Cadillac on nights like this, rose to their feet and roared. Everyone in the ballpark knew: This was the biggest pitch of the night. With two men on base, his team up 4-0, Jake Westbrook stared down at the hottest hitter on the planet and unleashed a 92 mph fastball. Manny Ramirez swung and grounded weakly to short, into an inning-ending double play.

Westbrook doesn't have C.C. Sabathia's 98 mph heater or Fausto Carmona's sinker from hell, but in Game 3 of the ALCS, the slow-talking southern boy did what his rotation mates couldn't in Games 1 and 2: Silence Boston's juggernaut lineup and contain the two most feared sluggers in the postseason -- Ramirez and his bash brother, David Ortiz.

Really, it was simple. "You want to get ahead, you want to throw strikes, you don't want to throw fastballs down the middle," said Westbrook, looking like a man who'd barely broken a sweat, after the game. "I was able to do that tonight."

All night long Westbrook attacked the strike zone, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 Boston batters and 21 of the 28 hitters he faced on the night. His sinker working brilliantly, Westbrook got 15 of 20 outs on groundballs. He ended three of the first six innings in double plays. He made one mistake -- a fastball that didn't sink enough, a pitch that Jason Varitek slammed into the centerfield seats for Boston's only two runs of the night.

Boston hitters wore down Sabathia and Carmona with their patience in Games 1 and 2, but that philosophy didn't work against Westbrook, a 30-year-old veteran with a 62-62 career record and 4.35 ERA. "The strategy, especially with guys that are sinking the ball, is to get pitches up in the zone that you can handle," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "With Carmona, the ball was out of the zone and it was ball one. Tonight those were down, but they were really good pitches. I don't know that we want to do a whole lot with those."

Westbrook outpitched Boston's baby-faced maestro, a Japanese superstar who had become legendary in his home country for his big-game performances. Before the game, Francona said he didn't know what to expect from Daisuke Matsuzaka in his first postseason start on the road, calling Matsuzaka "a wild card." On this night, Dice-K failed to command his fastball, and couldn't give Boston five innings for the second straight time in the postseason. "101 pitches [in 4 2/3 innings], it's a lot of pitches," said Francona. "It's a lot of deep counts. The more pitches you throw, especially to dangerous hitters, the better chance you give them."

The biggest revelation of the postseason has been the Cleveland bullpen, which has posted a 2.07 ERA in 26 postseason innings; and in Game 3, the staff continued to shine. Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, and Joe Borowski -- the mere mention of his name used to make Red Sox fans salivate -- didn't allow a single baserunner in 2 1/3 innings of work. Suddenly, the Indians' no-name bullpen looks like a true October force. "We like our chances if we're going into the late innings in a close game," said Cleveland third baseman Casey Blake. "People may not know our relievers around the country, but they stack up with any other staff."

Before the game Francona reiterated his plan to start Tim Wakefield in Game 4, instead of Josh Beckett on three days' rest. But now Matsuzaka doesn't look like a pitcher Boston can count on this October, and he's slated to pitch in a potential Game 7. Will it go that far? Boston faces Paul Byrd in Game 4 with Sabathia and Carmona looming. The NLCS may be over, but you get the sense that this series, a classic in the making, has just begun.