In a season full of big wins, big disappointments, big comebacks and a big World Series Championship, sometimes it is important to take a step back and take a look at some of the little things that made all of that possible. This time, we will take a look at Jake Westbrook.
Jake Westbrook came to the Cardinals in a wildly unpopular deal at the non-waiver trade deadline in 2010. The Cardinals gave up a fan favorite in Ryan Ludwick, a solid defender with a strong arm. We remember him as an All Star hitting nearly .300 and driving in 100 runs, but that’s not the player that was traded last July. He was struggling at the time, and has struggled since. Maybe the Front Office knew what they were doing (insert your favorite comments about the 2011 trade deadline deals).
Westbrook seemed like the perfect addition to the Cardinals rotation. Even though he had missed a season due to Tommy John surgery, he logged over 200 innings between the Cardinals and Indians. Being a sinker pitch-to-contact type pitcher, he seemed tailor made for the Dave Duncan approach in St. Louis. His numbers at the end of the 2010 season seemed back up that notion, nearly duplicating those from his career year in 2004. That was enough for the Cardinals management to extend Westbrook for two years, solidifying the Cardinals rotation.
The regular season
In looking back at 2011, Westbrook had a good year. The big right hander did not miss a start, and he did post a positive record at 12-9. In addition, there were several stretches when he stepped up his game – late May, July in particular. If there was a problem for Westbrook, it was that his pitch counts soared early in the game and he rarely lasted beyond 6 innings. At times, that put a lot of strain on an already shaky bullpen. Still, the Cardinals were 18-15 in his 33 starts, and they needed every one of those wins to reach the post-season.
On the roster, off the roster, on the roster
When it came time for the post-season roster trimming, Jake Westbrook found himself active for the NLDS. He was Tony La Russa’s “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” insurance policy. With the unconventional way La Russa used the bullpen against the Phillies, Westbrook was never needed, leaving many fans and sportwriters to question why he was on the roster in the first place.
When the NLCS roster was posted, Westbrook was left off in favor of Kyle McClellan and Lance Lynn. McClellan had struggled at the end of the season, not unexpected given the number of innings he had logged while in the rotation. Lynn was the surprise, not having thrown a pitch since early August. Westbrook continued his regular workouts in the event that he would be needed.
Kyle McClellan made one appearance in the NLCS, facing just three batters. He was still showing signs of a dead arm, so when the World Series roster was released, Westbrook’s name was on it, and McClellan’s season was over. Again, fans and sportswriters questioned the move. One more time, Tony La Russa proved he knows more about baseball than all of us because that final roster decision may have been the difference in winning and losing the World Series.
The little thing
It is hard to believe that mop up duty in a loss might have changed the outcome of the 2011 World Series, but that is exactly what happened. In Game Four in Arlington, Edwin Jackson struggled through his 5 1/3 innings, keeping the Cardinals in the game. On the other side of the diamond, Derek Holland was cruising to an easy victory.
After walking two batters in the sixth inning, manager Tony La Russa had a difficult decision to make. He could go to his regular cadre of relievers and trot out Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte. Instead, he went with plan B. That turned out to be a smart move as the Cardinals weren’t getting anything going against Holland, so La Russa’s best arms will be rested for Game Five.
The first reliever in was Mitchell Boggs, and he had to face one of the hottest Rangers hitters, Mike Napoli. Napoli guessed right on the first Boggs pitch, and hit a high fastball deep into the left field seats for a 3 run homer. That proved to be the back breaker for the Cardinals – the additional insurance runs meant that Holland could stay in the game until the ninth inning.
Even though the Cardinals lost this game, there was a small victory to be found in the eighth inning. Boggs had settled down following the Napoli home run, but La Russa opted to give Westbrook an inning of work, perhaps just to see what he had. La Russa has gone on record saying that he doesn’t like to use starters in relief, but this was clearly an audition to see if Westbrook could help his club. And he did, with a scoreless inning, allowing just a hit and a walk. But it was how that inning played out that made the difference.
Nelson Cruz led off the inning with a single to right field, sort of a bloop hit. Adversity, right ? Not tonight. David Murphy grounds out to first, with Westbrook covering. Westbrook then pitches around Napoli, eventually walking him. The inning comes to an end when Westbrook gets Mitch Moreland to ground into a double play. Westbrook got the benefit of a very generous call at first base, but that is less important than getting the ground ball in that situation. Tony La Russa learned something very important, Westbrook could be an asset, should he be needed.
Game Six was one of the most exciting post-season games ever played. The roller coaster of emotions as the Rangers took lead after lead, just to watch the Cardinals come back and tie the game was unlike any other game in the series, post-season or my memory. Lost in the box score was a four batter appearance by Jake Westbrook in the 11th inning. He faced three of the same batters as he did in Game Four, with largely the same results. Nelson Cruz hits a bomb to right field that Lance Berkman tracks down. Mike Napoli gets a bloop hit to right field, at least it stayed in the ballpark. David Murphy hits a long fly ball to center field, but the cool night air in St. Louis also kept that one in the park. Westbrook then got pinch hitter Esteban German to ground out, ending the inning.
That scoreless inning set up the dramatic walk-off home run from David Freese, and forced a Game Seven the following night. If Westbrook doesn’t put a zero on the scoreboard against some dangerous Rangers hitters in Game Four, La Russa might have used a different reliever in Game Six, Who knows how that game might have ended. For his scoreless inning in Game Six, Westbrook gets the win, the Cardinals win the game. 24 hours laters, both are World Champions. You can now smile, Jake. You have a World Series ring.