March 16, 2006
Every Five Days: A Pitcher's Ritual
Being a Major League pitcher requires a lot of work - on and off the field. On day one he takes the mound. In the several days that follow he prepares to do it again. We follow Jake Westbrook through his pitching ritual.
Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook follows a careful routine between starts.
As has been the case all season, the Indians are in a tight battle with the Minnesota Twins. The May 24 game is tied 2-2 after five innings. Indians starter Jake Westbrook has battled out of jams throughout the game.
But not this time. The Twins plate the go-ahead run in the sixth.
Westbrook, obviously disappointed, walks off the field at inning's end, trailing 3-2. In the dugout, manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis tell him his evening is over.
And his preparation for his next start - five days later - begins.
When he's removed from the game, Westbrook stays in the dugout to watch the Indians hit in the next half inning. On this day, Grady Sizemore's home run ties the game, 3-3, after six innings.
Westbrook walks through the tunnel that winds back to the Jacobs Field clubhouse. He removes his uniform, has his shoulder and elbow wrapped in ice for 15 minutes before taking a shower and dressing. He watches on the clubhouse televisions as the Indians drop a 6-3 decision in 11 innings.
As is the routine, Westbrook stands in front of his locker and answers questions from the media. He leaves the clubhouse reviewing the game, yet knows when he reports to Jacobs Field the following day that he will begin preparing for his start against Oakland on Sunday.
Wednesday, May 25
Westbrook arrives at the Ballpark around 2 p.m. for the hardest workout of his week.
"I'm usually pretty sore," he says. "It's not natural to throw a baseball. It's mostly my shoulder, back and hips."
Westbrook jumps into his work. He runs sprints in the outfield, does lower-body exercises and gets his arm stretched out by a team trainer. Westbrook also lifts light weights to strengthen his arm and shoulder, work the kinks out and loosen the arm.
"It's a good chance to flush the system out," he says. "You prepare for your next start. That's why you work out, so you can throw 100-plus pitches and then bounce back four days later."
There's another game tonight and the players follow a similar pattern. The entire team stretches and plays catch about three hours before gametime. During batting practice, the pitchers shag fly balls in the outfield.
Westbrook runs hard to work up a good sweat.
The Indians' batting practice ends at 5:30 p.m. for a night game. Westbrook has something to eat and finishes his workout on the stationary bike. He changes into his uniform, "and my day will be done," he says. "Then I'll go to the dugout and watch the ballgame."
But last night's game is still on Westbrook's mind.
"After a game, sometimes I have headaches," he says. "I'll go over the game pitch by pitch. It can get to you. It's mentally taxing. I'll watch TV and try to unwind. I have a tough time going to sleep."
Thursday, May 26
Westbrook describes his day as "pretty light."
"I give my body a chance to rest up," he says. "I recuperate from my outing and a pretty hard workout [the day before]."
Of course, Westbrook's "pretty light" day would be a full workout for most people. He arrives at Jacobs Field at 3 p.m., goes through a stretching regimen, runs sprints in the outfield, plays catch and shags fly balls.
Surprisingly, the soreness in Westbrook's shoulder, back and hips is worse on the second day after a start. "I'm not sure if it's that way with everybody, but it's that way with me," he says.
The first two months of the 2005 season have been frustrating for Westbrook. After finishing 14-9 and making the All-Star team in 2004, he's 1-7 in 10 starts this season. He has two complete games, but has lost both because the Indians were shut out both times. Westbrook also has been given the least amount of run support among American League starters.
"I can't worry about stuff like that," he says. "I've pitched three ballgames [two against Detroit and one against Texas in which he has allowed 23 runs in 7 2/3 innings] where I haven't given us much of a chance to win. They [the Indians hitters] could say the same thing about me."
Still, he won't dwell on the negative.
"Nobody here [in the clubhouse] wants to see you moping around for four days," he says.
Friday, May 27
Unlike most starting pitchers, Westbrook doesn't always throw in the bullpen between starts. On this occasion, he throws about 25 pitches to a catcher in the outfield.
"It depends on how my arm feels," he says. Not throwing helps keep his arm fresh. When he does pitch between starts, Westbrook says it's less intense, working on hitting spots and on his mechanics.
Westbrook, 27, doesn't want to take any chances with his arm. He missed most of the 2002 season because of elbow surgery.
The general soreness Westbrook has been feeling is almost gone. "Every day, it gets better," he says.
Westbrook uses several tools to get ready for Oakland's hitters. He watches the Friday and Saturday games from the dugout.
Westbrook also studies film compiled by the Indians' video department for his specific needs. For instance, it wouldn't do Westbrook, who relies on a fastball in the low 90s and a sinkerball, much good to watch video of how the A's hitters do against C.C. Sabathia, the Indians' hard-throwing left-hander.
"I watch what they do against right-handed sinkerball pitchers like me," he says. "It benefits me a lot."
And since the Indians have not faced the A's yet this season, the pitchers and catchers meet with Willis to go over the Oakland hitters. The outing will be a challenge for Westbrook, who is 0-5 lifetime against Oakland.
Saturday, May 28
On the day before his start, Westbrook runs and follows the usual pitchers' routine.
His mental preparation has begun. Westbrook watched the A's hitters the night before and keeps a close eye on third baseman Eric Chavez, a tough left-handed hitter.
"I've had some trouble with Chavez," he says. "He's always been someone who has hit me pretty well."
In fact, Chavez is batting .400 (6-for-15) lifetime against him with three homers and four walks.
Following the Indians' 6-3 win, Westbrook gets ready to leave the Ballpark. The start he's been preparing for is about 15 hours away.
Westbrook says he has more trouble sleeping after he pitches than he does the night before he starts.
"I won't have problems sleeping at all," he says.
Sunday, May 29
Westbrook arrives at Jacobs Field three hours before the 1:05 p.m. game. He relaxes and gets his arm rubbed down and stretched by the trainers. For a night game, Westbrook eats two grilled sandwiches. For a day game such as this, he'll have eggs and waffles.
About 90 minutes before the game, Westbrook sits alone in front of his locker.
"I would imagine every starting pitcher gets nervous," he says. "I'm anxious and ready to get going. I'm not thinking, 'I hope I don't screw up,' but I am nervous."
At 12:34 p.m., Westbrook emerges from the dugout with Willis and catcher Victor Martinez, who will be behind the plate today. Westbrook walks to deep center field and starts some stretching exercises, which are followed by a few sprints. Westbrook and Martinez then play catch.
At 12:42, Westbrook walks to the mound at the back end of the bullpen and begins his warm-up pitches. Sixteen minutes later, Westbrook, Martinez and Willis walk back to the dugout. Westbrook gets a drink, sits down and relaxes. At 1:04 p.m., the Indians take the field. Westbrook throws eight warm-up pitches.
At 1:06 p.m., Westbrook climbs on top of the mound, takes a deep breath, leans over, peers in for the sign from Martinez and fires his first pitch to Mark Kotsay, who grounds out to second baseman Ronnie Belliard.
The game goes well for the Indians and Westbrook. A sacrifice fly by Belliard in the second, a two-run triple by Alex Cora and an RBI single by Jose Hernandez in the fourth give the Tribe a 4-0 lead. Westbrook strands two runners in the first and two in the fourth. The A's load the bases with one out in the sixth, but Westbrook retires Eric Byrnes on a sacrifice fly and Marco Scutaro on a ground ball. The Indians add a run in the sixth on Martinez's homer.
Westbrook has a 1-2-3 seventh and is pulled after the inning. He allows one run on four hits in seven innings. Westbrook throws 96 pitches, striking out three and walking three.
And how does the duel with Chavez work out? He doubles over first base in the first. Westbrook wins an 11-pitch battle in the fourth, getting him to ground out. And Chavez walks in the sixth.
Following the 6-2 win, which completes a three-game sweep, the Indians' clubhouse is understandably upbeat. Westbrook smiles as he talks to reporters, but knows he was far from perfect.
"I was all over the place today," he says. "I was very erratic. It wasn't one of my best games, but the offense was great and the guys made some good plays behind me."
Informed he had been winless against the A's, he says, "I didn't know that. I knew I hadn't had too much success against them."
Naturally, Westbrook is happy to get his second win of the season.
"It definitely feels good," he says. "Going into the night, I'll relax and reflect and take it all in."
For Westbrook, who will pitch during the weekend in Chicago, the process is about to begin again.
"This is a very humbling game," he says. "If you win, you can't go around thinking you're the greatest pitcher ever. You have nine guys with bats the next time you pitch waiting for you."
And there's no doubt Westbrook will be waiting for them.