GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The day surgery became inevitable, Jake Westbrook knew it would be a long road back to the big leagues.
At long last, he is set to reach the end of that road -- at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field.
That's where Westbrook will make his long-awaited return to the Indians' rotation Monday at 2:05 p.m. ET. And pardon him if simply getting back to this level means a little more than getting the 2010 Opening Day nod against the White Sox.
Westbrook has pitched on Opening Day before. He filled in for injured ace CC Sabathia in 2005.
But Westbrook has never before returned to work nearly two years after doctors sliced into his elbow to perform Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.
This is a first.
"If I hadn't pitched on Opening Day before, it would be even more exciting," said Westbrook, whose last start, on May 28, 2008, also came against the White Sox. "For me, it's more just about getting back into pitching, as opposed to throwing Opening Day. I'm definitely honored and excited about the opportunity to throw that day. But I think I'm more excited to just be out there, period."
Can't fault him for that line of thought. Keep in mind, Westbrook expected this day to come last June, not now.
When a pitcher undergoes Tommy John surgery, he is usually given a 12-18 month return-to-play prognosis. All pitchers root for the front end of that projection, of course. But Westbrook was 30 years old when he had the surgery in June 2008. His body didn't bounce back quite as quickly as he hoped.
A year ago at this time, Westbrook was on target to join the Tribe midseason. But he had not one, but two setbacks in his Minor League rehab program and eventually he ran out of time to pitch in '09.
"From the day they said I was about to have surgery, I knew it was going to be a long time," he said. "Even if it's 12 months, it's a long time. But you've got to keep plugging along, see how you feel each day and make adjustments when you can make adjustments, which I had to make a bunch of last year. That's why I'm so encouraged by how I feel right now."
The situation around him is not as encouraging. While Westbrook was out of the office, the Indians traded away some valuable employees -- most notably Cy Young winners Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
So Westbrook, who averaged 14.7 wins and 212.5 innings pitched from 2004-06, returns not as a middle-of-the-rotation guy looking to eat up innings -- but as the guy who will be counted on to lead the rotation, both in terms of performance and example.
Westbrook, now 32 and entering the final year of his contract with the Tribe, is up for the challenge.
"Over time, I've been put in that leadership role with my experience and the time in the big leagues that I have," he said. "Especially with all the trades, I'm the only one still here. So I definitely need to take on a leadership role, and I'm looking forward to that. It's exciting to see these young guys coming up, and hopefully I can be there to help them out any way they need me."
The Indians need Westbrook to set the tone in the season opener. While this is a year geared more toward development than contention, no one in the Tribe clubhouse is ruling out the possibility of surprising some people. That's partly due to the positive energy instilled by new manager Manny Acta, who will be looking to start his managerial tenure here on a winning note against an AL Central foe.
"He has a lot of energy," Westbrook said of Acta. "That's something that's fun to be a part of."
Acta had fun watching Westbrook progress in the Puerto Rican Winter League and in spring camp, because the veteran right-hander proved he is back to full health. Westbrook, who went 2-0 with a 4.86 ERA in five Cactus League starts, had some control issues in Arizona, walking nine batters in 16 2/3 innings. But the Indians expected some rust with the long layoff.
What pleased Acta most was the life on Westbrook's sinker.
"This guy has gone some games out there and averaged 91 miles per hour, topped at 93," Acta said. "A couple games he hasn't had the command you want out of him, but the ball is coming out of his hand really well. We're very encouraged by how he's done. I did see him in Puerto Rico, but he was still missing some pop on his fastball. That hasn't been the case here in Spring Training."
Now, at long last, it's time for Westbrook to return to games that count.
For him, Opening Day is a Grand Reopening.
"I'm excited about getting out there and pitching again," he said. "I'm real encouraged with how I feel. I feel like I'm close. My stuff's there, my health's there. Now it's a matter of concerning myself more with being consistent and being at my best."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.