Westbrook's gem leads Indians past Tigers

Westbrook's gem leads Indians past Tigers

DETROIT -- Jake Westbrook has his health, his skills and his confidence in tow.

All the tools one needs for a successful audition.

You have no doubt heard Westbrook's name bandied about as a July trade candidate, as it's fair to speculate that an Indians team that has dealt CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, among many others, in recent years will almost certainly solicit offers for a healthy Westbrook from viable contenders.

But after his resplendent outing against the Tigers on Tuesday night at Comerica Park, where Westbrook guided the Tribe to a 3-2 victory in the series opener, expect that speculation to intensify. Because if Westbrook wasn't all the way back to his pre-Tommy John form before this start, he appears to be now.

"I feel like I'm back, health-wise," he said. "I just need to be more consistent with each start to get back to where I was. Hopefully, this will be a building block toward being more consistent."

For the better part of 7 2/3 innings, Westbrook worked quickly, stayed ahead and didn't buckle against a difficult lineup. He allowed just a run on five hits with a walk, two hit batsmen and a strikeout. He was, in manager Manny Acta's estimation, better than he's been all year.

"He threw a complete game, almost a shutout, [on May 16] in Baltimore," Acta said. "But today, with the amount of first-pitch strikes and the way he was getting in on some good hitters, I think this was his best start."

The Indians had won just two other games this season when scoring three runs or fewer, losing 22 times in that scenario. They won this one because of Westbrook, and because closer Kerry Wood managed to hold on for dear life in the ninth, when Russell Branyan made an error at an inopportune time.

Westbrook certainly took some time to get to this point. June 12 will be the two-year anniversary of his surgery. He had hoped to make it back in a year, but for a starter over 30, that's easier said than done.

Before injuring his elbow, Westbrook had been a consistent, reliable arm in the middle of the Indians' rotation. On this young Tribe team, however, Westbrook returned from a 22-month absence as the Tribe's No. 1.

The rust from the layoff showed early in the season, but Westbrook's command has improved as the year has rolled along. And on this night, he took another big step.

Of course, it didn't look that way initially. It took Westbrook 12 pitches to retire Tigers leadoff man Austin Jackson in the first, and the ball Jackson grounded to short was smoked. But from that point on, Westbrook was essentially in control. The Tigers' lone run off him came in the second on an RBI single from Carlos Guillen. They wouldn't seriously threaten Westbrook again until the eighth.

"He's always going to have good sink," Detroit's Brandon Inge said. "What I noticed about him today was, when we did get a pitch that was good, there was nobody on and nobody out, and he would go after you, which you're supposed to do as a pitcher. ... When he did get guys in scoring position, when he did get into some sort of a jam with runners on, he didn't throw you much to hit, and he was really good."

Westbrook didn't get a great deal of support from the bats, but that's come to be expected with this young and injury-depleted lineup. All the Indians could offer against Jeremy Bonderman was a Branyan leadoff shot in the fifth that evened the score, a Shin-Soo Choo solo shot in the sixth to make it 2-1 and snap Choo's 0-for-19 skid and a Mark Grudzielanek RBI single to left in the eighth.

Clinging to that 3-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth was no easy feat. Westbrook began to lose his command a bit, plunking pinch-hitter Don Kelly with a pitch and walking Johnny Damon with two outs. But reliever Chris Perez came on to get Magglio Ordonez to pop out to end the threat.

Acta said he did not consider bringing in Wood for the four-out save, regardless of Perez's disastrous outing in the Bronx the previous day.

"We're not going to take away from what this kid [Perez] has done for us," Acta said. "He just had a bad outing. He was closing games for us for a month, and we're going to continue to trust this guy."

In the ninth, that trust was placed in Wood, who quickly got the first two outs of the inning. He appeared to have the final out of the game when Guillen sent a grounder to first. But Branyan bobbled the ball, and Guillen reached on the error. The Tigers had new life and took advantage of it. Wood walked Inge, then served up an RBI single to Alex Avila to make it dangerously close at 3-2.

Just when it seemed Wood might erase all that Westbrook had built up, Ramon Santiago flew out to left to end the game.

Westbrook, then, got the victory he deserved.

"He looked so relaxed out there," Acta said. "The ball was coming out of his hand nice and easy, and he threw a lot of first-pitch strikes."

Acta noted that Westbrook's cutter was particularly effective against left-handers. The Tigers' hitters noted that Westbrook's ability to drop down his delivery on occasion kept them a bit off balance. These are tools that will help Westbrook and his confidence as this season rolls along.

The only question is what uniform he'll be wearing.

"I'm not thinking about that," Westbrook said. "First and foremost, I feel great. Right now, I'm concentrating on getting back to where I used to be and being consistent. I learned at an early age that if you worry about things you can't control, you're going to eat yourself up."

On this night, Westbrook simply ate up the opposition. And if it was indeed an audition, it went off without a hitch.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.