- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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CLEVELAND -- The Baseball Reference Web site has a neat little feature that compares major leaguers across generations based on their statistical profiles. In a strange twist, Jake Westbrook's closest comparable is a contemporary: Carl Pavano.
The comparison seems odd because Pavano, through his status as one of baseball's all-time payroll bandits, is an object of scorn and derision throughout the game and the focus of outright hostility in New York.
And Westbrook? He's the personification of "low profile.'' Let's just say the guy doesn't turn a lot of heads when he takes a Saturday stroll through the mall.
The recipe for anonymity begins with a career 62-62 record and 4.35 ERA -- as classically average as you can get -- and extends to Westbrook's public persona. He comes across as just a quiet, nondescript guy who loves University of Georgia sports and lists fishing as his favorite hobby in the team media guide.
If you predicted Westbrook would have outpitched teammates C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in this series, then you've probably already guessed the winner of People magazine's Sexiest Fan Alive contest.
But you never know who's going to assert himself on a national stage, and Game 3 of the American League Championship Series belonged to Westbrook. He induced 14 groundouts and three double plays in 6 2/3 innings, and the Cleveland Indians took a 2-1 series lead over Boston with a 4-2 victory before 44,402 towel-waving zanies at Jacobs Field.
There were several pivotal elements to Cleveland's victory. Kenny Lofton, old faithful, jump-started the Indians with a two-run homer off Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski combined for 2 1/3 innings of shutout relief.
Fans of Cleveland sports nostalgia might have enjoyed a press room encounter in which a reporter asked Lofton to compare the Indians' current bullpen with the Eric Plunk-Paul Assenmacher-Jose Mesa contingent that helped pitch the Indians to the World Series in 1995.
"These guys just go out there and they throw strikes,'' Lofton said. "That's always good in the playoffs, when every game can be 2-1, 3-1 or 4-2.''
It was Westbrook, faithfully pounding the bottom edge of the strike zone with his sinker, who set the tone in Game 3. He threw 21 of 27 first-pitch strikes, and held the Red Sox scoreless until Jason Varitek's two-run homer to center field in the seventh inning.
"It's a testament to him keeping the game small, keeping it simple and keeping it pitch to pitch,'' Lewis said. "He did a hell of a job for us tonight. It was something we needed, obviously. He really answered the call.''
If the Indians go on to win this series, they'll undoubtedly look back at their seven-run 11th inning
Saturday night as the turning point. It allowed the Indians to come home to a friendly, supportive environment tied 1-1, with the knowledge that their two 19-game winners, Sabathia and Carmona, had combined for 8 1/3 innings and a 12.97 ERA in Boston.
Enter Westbrook, who's taken a little longer to reach his destiny than the early scouting reports might have suggested.
The Colorado Rockies expected big things when they selected Westbrook with the 21st overall pick in the 1996 draft, but his road to prominence has taken a few detours. The Rockies sent him to Montreal in 1999 as part of a package deal for Mike Lansing, and he's since been traded to the Yankees (for Hideki Irabu) and the Indians (as part of a package for David Justice).
When Westbrook made his major league debut with the Yankees at age 22, Buster Olney, then with the New York Times, described him as "a transplant from the 1950s, like a refugee from Mayberry,'' with his soft Southern drawl and unassuming demeanor.
He trusted himself and trusted his sinker and showed a lot of courage out there
--Casey Blake on Westbrook
The one constant is Westbrook's faith in and reliance on the sinker, as evidenced by his 2.68 career groundball-flyball ratio. That's not quite in Brandon Webb-Derek Lowe territory. But the same repertoire that gets Westbrook into messes, when some of those grounders find holes, frequently allows him to escape.
In the first inning, Westbrook induced David Ortiz to hit into a 4-5-3 double play against a Cleveland shift. An inning later, the Tribe turned two against Coco Crisp. And Westbrook's biggest escape act occurred in the sixth, when he fell behind 3-0 on Manny Ramirez only to coax a third double play.
"He trusted himself and trusted his sinker and showed a lot of courage out there,'' third baseman Casey Blake said. "When he's throwing it 90 or 91 miles an hour and it's sinking like that, it's easy to hit the top of the ball.''
Westbrook's teammates insist he's not as bland as outward appearances would suggest. He's a stickler for preparation and quite intense every fifth day, and a guy who prides himself on helping to keep things loose the rest of the time.
"On days he's not pitching, he's like the class clown,'' Indians first baseman Ryan Garko said. "He'll be in here throwing a football and running around the training room.''
Said Lewis: "We've had some nerf wars, with guys coming around the corner and trying to be Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards. Jake is a veteran guy, so he understands when to be serious and when to cut up a little bit.''
The Indians achieved a rare stress-free ninth Monday night, when the usually adventurous Borowski retired Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew and Varitek in order on a mere 17 pitches. The ending was so tidy, the fans didn't even have to use their rally towels to mop their foreheads.
In Game 4 on Tuesday night, the Indians turn to Paul Byrd, who walked a tightrope in the Division Series against the Yankees last week and is never going to scare opponents with his velocity or his pure stuff.
Then again, most people probably didn't have great expectations for Jake Westbrook before Monday night. This is October, and you never can tell who's going to seize the moment.
With his sinker faithfully pounding the bottom edge of the strike zone, Jake Westbrook set the tone in Game 3.