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Westbrook eager for opportunity

Westbrook eager for opportunity

CLEVELAND -- The time spent by Jake Westbrook as part of the Yankees' organization didn't last much longer than a New York minute.

His stint covered one year in the system after being traded with Ted Lilly from Montreal for Hideki Irabu in December, 1999. He made three appearances at the Major League level, among which were two forgettable starts, before he was traded on June 29, 2000, to Cleveland as part of a package for David Justice.

But on Sunday, Westbrook returns to Yankee Stadium, where he made his Major League debut against the White Sox in 2000, only 12 days before being shipped out. He has taken to the mound as a visitor on these hallowed grounds in five games since his rookie season, but arguably none of those previous appearances will hold the importance of working in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, with the Indians one win away from clinching a spot in the AL Championship Series.

Westbrook now stands as a modestly salaried, middle-of-the-rotation veteran, scheduled to earn $33 million over the next three years, after the sinkerball specialist posted 57 wins in his last five seasons as a Cleveland starter. Those wins and the 153 career starts made by Westbrook for the Indians all have come without a postseason appearance -- until this weekend.

While the 30-year-old right-hander doesn't intend to alter his approach for the special appearance, he has been preparing all week. Truth be told, Westbrook has been dreaming of hitting this particular target since he was little.

"I'm definitely excited to be playing in this time of the year," Westbrook said. "You set goals as a kid to make it to the big leagues. When you do make it, you set goals for yourself and your team that you want to get to the World Series and win it. That's everyone's goal here, including myself.

"I feel really good about the way I'm pitching right now," added Westbrook, who finished 2007 with a 6-9 record and 4.32 ERA, but also won five of his final eight decisions. "You have to have a lot of confidence to pitch and to pitch in the playoffs. I'll take that confidence I've gained in the last month or two months, with the way I've pitched, and bring that into the playoffs."

This Game 3 will take on a little extra meaning in this five-game Division Series. Usually, one team takes control and regains home-field advantage in the case of an opening two-game split.

In the Indians' scenario, they can finish off the Yankees and their vaunted offense. Westbrook appears to be the perfect man to handle this particular job.

Cleveland could have opted for Paul Byrd, a proven winner with the past pedigree to get outs in big games. But simply put, Westbrook has better raw stuff.

On Aug. 23 at Detroit, Westbrook allowed five hits over eight shutout innings during his team's 3-1 victory. He two-hit Tampa Bay over seven innings on Aug. 18 and did the same against the White Sox on Aug. 7, picking up wins on both latter occasions.

September was not as kind to Westbrook, closing out the year with a 1-2 record and 4.14 ERA. His 0-2 record with a 12.46 ERA against the Yankees this season, along with a seven-day layoff since his last start, doesn't exactly give great hope for instant success.

Those past numbers don't seem to bother Westbrook. Neither do the Yankees.

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"They have one of baseball's best lineups, and you can't make mistakes against them," Westbrook said. "But you don't make it to the playoffs without a good lineup. It's a matter of if you are on your game or not as a pitcher. It's a matter of if you are throwing the ball well and throwing strikes with all of your pitches. If you mix it up well, you can have some success."

"[Westbrook is] a guy that prides himself on being someone that you can count on, and you know what you're going to get from him," said Indians manager Eric Wedge. "Very intelligent, tough competitor. He has a quiet intensity about him that he channels in the right direction, and I'm hoping we'll see that [Sunday]."

As mentioned previously, Westbrook began to hone in on this start Tuesday when he threw a long bullpen session to simulate his regular turn in the rotation. Westbrook returns to the mound on four days' rest, just like most other 2007 starts.

This one has a little extra significance, even if Westbrook won't readily admit it.

Call it a possible playoff clincher in Yankee Stadium, not to mention Westbrook working with his teammates to eliminate the organization who gave him his first big league chance.

"It was just three-fourths of the season, but it definitely was a good organization," said Westbrook, who briefly worked on the same staff as Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Roger Clemens. The Hall of Fame bound Clemens gets the start for New York on Sunday, while Westbrook will face former teammates such as Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada from the 2000 World Series champions.

"They had a lot of big-name guys, and it was a little tough being a young guy with that organization. I didn't have much time to get settled in there, but I still got an opportunity with them and I was very appreciative.

"That's a different type of feel with them, obviously, being world champions 26 times," Westbrook added. "But I've had a lot of success here and it's good to be a Cleveland Indian. It's been an enjoyable ride."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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