CLEVELAND – Not their best. Not even second best. Jake Westbrook, right at home in the Jake, was exactly what the Cleveland Indians needed.
Westbrook, an often overlooked third wheel in the rotation, kept Boston grounded for nearly seven innings Monday night, leading the Indians to a 4-2 win over the Red Sox and a 2-1 lead in the AL championship series.
The laid-back right-hander, who missed a big chunk of the season with an injury, doesn't possess the overpowering stuff of either C.C. Sabathia or Fausto Carmona — Cleveland's two aces who flopped badly in Games 1 and 2 at Fenway Park — or their stellar reputations.
But Westbrook does have a devastating sinkerball, and oh my, how it sunk the Red Sox.
Backed by an early homer from old pro Kenny Lofton, Westbrook took a shutout into the seventh inning.
Game 4 on Tuesday night will feature two soft tossers: Cleveland's Paul Byrd, with his old-school windup, and Boston's Tim Wakefield, the 41-year-old knuckleballing master.
Boston grounded into three double plays, two of them by October's scariest twosome — David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. They combined for something more unusual — Ramirez's grounder nailed Big Papi in the leg on the basepaths for an out that helped Westbrook.
In all, Westbrook got 14 of 19 outs on balls the Red Sox pounded weakly into the manicured grass and infield dirt at Jacobs Field, which hosted its first ALCS game since 1998. Back then, Westbrook was in Montreal's minor league system perfecting a pitch that drops, dips and darts as it approaches home plate.
The Red Sox couldn't do anything with it until the seventh, when Jason Varitek hit a two-run homer.
Jensen Lewis relieved with a runner on and struck out rookie Dustin Pedroia to end the inning. Rafael Betancourt worked a perfect eighth and Joe Borowski, the AL saves leader, pitched a rare 1-2-3 ninth.
Lofton, with a baseball passport stamped by 11 teams over 17 seasons, handed Westbrook an early lead with a two-run homer in the second inning off Daisuke Matsuzaka. Cleveland added two more runs in the fifth against the high-priced Japanese import, whom the Red Sox invested more than $100 million in to pitch in games like this.
By comparison, Westbrook was a bargain at $33 million for the Indians, who locked him up in April for three more years before he had a chance to test the free-agent market after this season.
Westbrook then spent seven weeks on the disabled list with a side injury and didn't find his groove until August, when he went 4-1 with a 1.90 ERA. But even then, Westbrook, who lost to the Red Sox on July 23, wasn't expected to shut down Boston.
Westbrook was in complete control until J.D. Drew grounded a one-out single to center in the seventh. Varitek followed with a homer to center, bringing the Red Sox to 4-2.
The homer ended Boston's 13-inning scoreless streak, a drought that began in the sixth inning of Game 2 on Saturday night.
Westbrook struck out Coco Crisp but when Julio Lugo beat out an infield single, manager Eric Wedge pulled his gutty starter, who received a thunderous ovation from the towel-waving crowd of 44,402 as he jogged to the dugout.
Lofton, a 40-year-old who could still pass as a twentysomething, gave the Indians a 2-0 lead in the second with his seventh career postseason homer.
Ryan Garko singled with one out, and with two down, Lofton, traded back for his third stint with the Indians in July, turned on Matsuzaka's first pitch and sent it on a low trajectory and barely over the right-field wall.
After high-fiving delirious teammates, Lofton, whose every move has been cheered since he returned to Cleveland, came out and tipped his helmet to the adoring crowd.
The Red Sox ran themselves out of a potential scoring opportunity in the fourth.
Ortiz ended an 0-for-8 drought vs. Westbrook with an opposite-field double off the wall in left, but then was struck on the leg when he inexplicably broke for third on a hard-hit grounder to shortstop by Ramirez.
On another unusually warm fall night, Indians fans came well prepared to see if the Indians, who ousted the big-budget New York Yankees in the opening round, could take down another titan.
In addition to carrying light jackets for when the game-time temperature dropped, fans received packets of bug-repellant wipes to combat the midges who pestered the Yanks in the opening round.
However, there wasn't anything to keep the Red Sox from buzzing the bases early on.
In the second inning, Boston loaded them on a walk, single and error by first baseman Garko, a former catcher who botched an easy grounder. But Westbrook got Varitek to fly to left and then escaped trouble by getting Crisp to hit into an inning-ending double play.
Westbrook gave up a one-out walk to Kevin Youkilis in the first, but got Ortiz to hit a hard grounder into the shift toward second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. The converted shortstop picked it cleanly and threw to second, where third baseman Casey Blake turned the unconventional 4-5-3 double play.