KANSAS CITY -- Jake Westbrook turned 30 on Saturday. And in many ways, he showed his age. Don't read that as a bad thing, even though the eventual outcome for the Indians in this 4-3 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium was decidedly bad. The loss cost them a shot at the American League's (and baseball's) best record, which went to the Red Sox. But something else was gained on this night, and that was deeper faith in Westbrook's ability to make adjustments.
Westbrook, you see, didn't have his best sinker on this night. And that's never a good situation for a sinkerball pitcher. But what separates the Westbrook of today -- the one who, it was announced, will be the Indians' Game 3 starter in next week's ALDS -- from the one of, say, four years ago is the ability to battle on those nights where his sinker is, well, sunk. "When you look at our starting pitchers, and C.C. [Sabathia] and Jake in particular," manager Eric Wedge said, "the guys who have been around a little bit know how to make those adjustments on those days where maybe the ball isn't bouncing our way or we aren't playing that well behind them or they don't have their best stuff. They still know how to get it done and still find a way to keep you in the ballgame." The Indians looked like they might be out of this ballgame early. Westbrook hit David DeJesus, the first batter he faced, with a pitch. Then he gave up a base hit to Mark Grudzielanek on a hit-and-run to put runners on the corners and a line-drive RBI double to Mark Teahen to make it 1-0. "My cutter got away from me on the first hitter," Westbrook said. "You never want to lead off an inning like that. I put myself in a hole, then gave up the big hit by Teahen." But Westbrook's trouble didn't end there. After striking out Mike Sweeney, he intentionally walked Ross Gload to load the bases and give the Indians an opportunity at turning a double play. That opportunity was quickly erased when Westbrook threw a wild pitch to Alex Gordon, allowing Grudzielanek to score. "That was a sinker," Westbrook said. "I was trying to get a ground ball and get a double play and get out of that inning. It just sank a little bit too much and was a tough pitch [for catcher Victor Martinez] to handle." The inning continued to give Westbrook all he could handle when Gordon sent a fly ball to shallow left. Kenny Lofton caught it, and Teahen tried to tag up from third. Teahen was able to slide under Martinez's glove to make it 3-0.
American League Division Series schedule
|Wed., Oct. 3||6:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||3 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||9:30 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||6:30 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||6:30 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||6 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|* If necessary. All times ET.|
"It was a good throw," Wedge said. "It pushed Victor back a little bit, but everybody made a good play, all around. It was one of those bang-bang plays." Westbrook mercifully got out of that inning, 27 pitches after it began, without further damage. But what was surprising was the fact that that was the only damage the Royals would do to him in 6 1/3 innings of work. He had a runner on second twice in the second inning but got out of it, and he didn't have another runner in scoring position until the seventh. This was the type of outing that likely would have unraveled on Westbrook a few months back, when he was still working his way back to form after missing six weeks with a strained abdominal muscle. But sinkerball pitchers, by nature, have to learn to pitch with men on base and have to learn to escape irreparable harm. "That's how you learn," Westbrook said. "You get experience with those situations. I've had plenty of times where I've given up a lot of runs early on and let it snowball on me. But with the experience I've gained, I've learned to make pitches and get out of jams. The more opportunities you get in those situations, the better you're going to be when you're faced with them again." With that experience in tow, Westbrook was given the nod for the Game 3 start over veteran 15-game winner Paul Byrd. The irony on this night, however, was that after Westbrook proved his worth as the third starter, the Indians lost the game, ensuring they'll need Byrd as a fourth starter in the ALDS. The Red Sox had their choice in ALDS start dates and went with Wednesday, leaving the Indians with the seven-day format that begins Thursday. Westbrook left this game with a no-decision because his offense erased those first-inning travails. In the third, Gil Meche walked Casey Blake and Asdrubal Cabrera and paid dearly for it. Martinez lifted a fly ball to shallow left, and left fielder Joey Gathright, center fielder David DeJesus and shortstop Tony Pena all lost track of it in the lights. It fell in for a gift base hit and scored both runners to make it 3-2. In the eighth, the Indians tied it when Martinez drove a legit RBI single to right off Jimmy Gobble. But when the Indians went on to load the bases with one out, closer Joakim Soria was able to retire Jason Michaels and Franklin Gutierrez to end the threat. The ineffectiveness with the bases jammed loomed large in the bottom of the inning. The Royals put two on against setup man Rafael Perez, who handed the ball over to Jensen Lewis. Gathright stepped up and lined a run-scoring single to right to give the Royals the go-ahead run. The bitter ending spoiled a fine turnaround outing from Westbrook, who goes into the postseason feeling as strong as he has all year. "I struggled early, but I felt like I got better as the game went on, with how my arm felt and how I was throwing the ball," Westbrook said. "That's a good sign for me. I think the DL stint might have helped me out, with the lack of innings I had this year, especially throwing 200 over the previous three. I feel fresh, and I feel strong."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.