Westbrook has Tribe ahead in count

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

CLEVELAND – Not long before Jake Westbrook would throw his first pitch Monday night, before he'd throw the first of many first pitches, his pitching coach reminded him of what they already had seen for two games.

The abundance of hitters' counts. The pitches amassed. All of the baserunners. The Boston Red Sox standing, waving their bats, looking fastball, willing to wait it out.

Carl Willis looked once more at Westbrook and told him again, one final notion to take with him to the center of the American League championship series.

"You have to force these guys to swing the bat," he said.

C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona had spent so much of the first two games pitching away from Red Sox bats, they had backed into so many counts, Westbrook could have only one strategy.

Strike one.

And so amid all that Cleveland loves – the waving towels, Kenny Lofton's Tribe reprise, Drew Carey's "The Price is Right" debut – Westbrook, Jake at The Jake, took dead aim and on Monday night pitched the Cleveland Indians to a 4-2 win and a two-games-to-one lead over the Red Sox.

In what was supposed to be the JV portion of the series – Sabathia and Carmona had taken their beatings, Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling had taken their turns – Westbrook took the momentum his bullpen had laid down for the final six innings of Game 2 and made it his own.

He pitched at Boston's bats. He pitched to contact, if the Red Sox would have it. And the Red Sox, after watching Carmona's sinkers fall under and away from the strike zone over 100 pitches (half of them for balls) in Game 2, apparently expected the same from the sinkerballer Westbrook.

Westbrook faced 27 batters in 6 2/3 innings and threw 21 first-pitch strikes. Sixteen of the 21 were taken for strikes, granting what every pitcher believes to be the most important pitch in the game: strike one.

While Daisuke Matsuzaka was just so-so and lasted 4 2/3 innings for the second time in two postseason starts, and while Red Sox hitters had only one hit with runners in scoring position, and while Westbrook turned three dicey spots into inning-ending double plays, it was not oh-no that hurt the Red Sox, but oh-one.

"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. It was ball one. Tonight those pitches were down; they were really good pitches. I don't know that we want to do a whole lot with those. That's what pitching is all about. You work ahead and you stay out of the middle of the plate. That's why guys are effective."

Westbrook started Jason Varitek with a cutter for a strike in the second inning, and eventually got him to fly to shallow left field with the bases loaded. That Red Sox threat died with a double play.

He started Manny Ramirez with a sinker for a strike in the fourth inning and eventually got him to hit David Ortiz in the thigh with a two-hopper, taking a man out of scoring position.

He started Varitek with a curveball for a strike in the fifth inning, Ramirez a two-seamer for a strike in the sixth inning. All of his pitches, bearing in on a corner, finding plate umpire Brian Gorman's malleable strike zone, pushing the Red Sox into uncomfortable corners.

"Yeah, he was actually able to do it with several different pitches," Varitek said. "He was able to do it with both his slider and his cutter to the lefties, then his changeup behind in the count. And when he did fall behind, he made some good, quality pitches to get himself back into favorable counts."

Westbrook had been kicking around The Jake for seven years, winning some, losing some, 15 games here, 15 games there. He's not the ace, nor is he necessarily at the back end of the rotation. This simply was his biggest game in their uniform, and one of his most forceful, against a batting order that had worked over the two 19-game winners.

Carmona, for one, had thrown seven first-pitch strikes to 20 batters. The first 11 Red Sox took their first pitches against Carmona, then Ortiz swung at a first pitch, and then the next eight took Carmona's first offering.

That was precisely what drove Westbrook's aggressiveness.

"Well, that's kind of what you have to do against these guys," he said. "They're a very patient team. If you start out one-and-oh, it's not to your advantage. So, we tried to get ahead tonight. I was able to do that and put myself in some good counts."

By the seventh inning, the Red Sox were in early-swing mode, having already spent their entire night at strike one. By the seventh inning, it was too late.

By then, Westbrook was jogging off to a standing ovation.

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