Indians dismiss hype, Red Sox
Cleveland proves to be much more than simple test for Boston
CLEVELAND -- Jake Westbrook vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka. If this were "Flags of Our Fathers," you would know immediately which side to support.
But Baseball 2007, being slightly more subtle than World War II 1945, what you have here is not a battle between democracy and imperialism, but a microcosm of the struggle between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. The latter is a less weighty matter, but a much tougher call.
Westbrook and the Indians had the better of it on Monday night, 4-2, and thus Cleveland, to the surprise of many outside Jacobs Field, gained a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series.
If you listened to the hype, the Indians didn't have a chance against the Red Sox. Then again, if you listened to the hype, Westbrook didn't have a chance against Matsuzaka. Maybe not listening to the hype is the really intelligent way to go.
Matsuzaka came to the States this year as a living legend of Japanese baseball, and the advance publicity was that this fellow was so durable and so versatile that he might single-handedly revolutionize North American pitching. Westbrook is a guy with a pretty good sinker who missed almost two months this season with an abdominal strain and eventually went 6-9.
Matsuzaka had pitched seven shutout innings the last time he faced the Indians, in July. Westbrook had given up five runs and 10 hits in six innings the last time he faced the Red Sox, also in July.
Plus, while Matsuzaka had not been involved in the decision in his first postseason work, the Red Sox did win in his start in an eventual Division Series sweep of the Angels. Westbrook had been hit hard, and took the Indians' only defeat in their Division Series victory over the Yankees.
But then when Game 3 of the ALCS arrived, Matsuzaka struggled persistently and Westbrook had the sinker working so well that the Red Sox could not touch him for six innings. By this time, the Indians had a 4-0 lead and Jason Varitek's two-run homer in the seventh was hardly fatal.
Three times in total, twice in absolutely critical situations, Westbrook induced a double-play grounder. In the second, he got Coco Crisp to hit one with the bases loaded. In the sixth, he got Manny Ramirez to hit one with two runners on.
"It was fun to be a sinkerball pitcher tonight," Westbrook said.
Through the first six innings, Westbrook got 14 ground-ball outs. This was how he pitched when he won 44 games over the last three seasons, twice winning 15, which, coincidentally or not, was the same number Matsuzaka won this season. And even this season, Westbrook's ERA of 4.32 turned out to be -- what's this? -- just a bit lower than Matsuzaka's 4.40.
When Westbrook departed this contest, after 6 2/3 innings, with the mighty Red Sox trailing, 4-2, he did so to the accompaniment of a thundering, richly deserved standing ovation from the assembled 44,402 at Jacobs Field. Westbrook produced a splendid performance in a highly pressurized situation.
The Indians have come up with two of those in a row in this Championship Series. The Indians' success here will not be all that surprising for their fans, or for that matter, for anybody who has been paying attention. Their record was the same as the Red Sox's in the regular season. Their ALDS victory over the Yankees was as impressive as the Red Sox's victory over the Angels at the same level.
Westbrook's outing again was important not entirely because he got the vast majority of Boston's hitters to pound the ball into the ground. Both of his predecessors on the mound in this series, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, had been roughed up. The Cleveland bullpen had been taxed in both games, and everybody had worked overtime in the Saturday night/Sunday morning marathon of Game 2. Westbrook needed to be both effective and efficient here, and he was.
"We needed it, we needed it," manager Eric Wedge said of Westbrook's performance. "Our bullpen has been working hard. That was a close ballgame throughout. It was a good baseball game. It was close. You needed to make pitches, you needed to make plays.
"For Jake to get us that deep in the ballgame and control the ballgame the way he did, right along with his defense, that was something we needed."
Whereas Sabathia and Carmona had not been their typical aggressive selves against the Red Sox, Westbrook basically brought his sinker, threw strikes, and essentially said: "Here, hit this on the ground." It was not a complex formula, but it worked.
"I just came in tonight wanting to get ahead, get strike one with a good quality pitch, and I was able to do that, and it showed by the way I pitched," Westbrook said. "I'm a sinkerball guy, I'm a two-seam fastball guy. That's what I live and die by. I threw that all night and was able just to mix in my secondary pitches pretty well."
Matsuzaka, on the other hand, needed 101 pitches to work 4 2/3 innings and could not get out of the fifth. He was not beaten about the head and shoulders by the Indians, but he also was not efficient, and that led to his defeat.
"It's a lot of deep counts," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "The more pitches you throw, especially to dangerous hitters, the better chance you give them."
When the chips were down, Jake Westbrook was a better bet than Daisuke Matsuzaka. Westbrook had the lower public profile, but he also had the sinker. This reminded you of a time when White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was listing the toughest pitchers in the AL Central. He could not immediately recall Westbrook's name and referred to him as "the nasty sinkerball guy." Even if he is not a household name, baseball people know how good Westbrook is.
And so Chapter III of the 2007 ALCS closed with the Indians still trailing in nationwide publicity, but leading at the pay window, 2-1. Much more of this and the surprise will be gone.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.