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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Georgia native Westbrook a soft-spoken hero

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

JUPITER, Fla. — A few days ago at Roger Dean Stadium, Jake Westbrook walked out to the mound and threw four scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins, who have a glib new manager, Ozzie Guillén, a new stadium with a rain-proof roof, new star players, and ambition to be where the Cardinals were last October — in the World Series.

Westbrook, an Ila, Ga., native and pitcher for the Cardinals, was keeping his sinker, his signature pitch, down and in the strike zone.

The Marlins found him difficult to hit, just as the Texas Rangers did last fall when they faced him in the 11th inning of the memorable and unforgettable Game 6 of the World Series. Westbrook gave up a single but retired the side and moved to the dugout, anxious and apprehensive like the rest of his teammates.

Suddenly, the unlikeliest season was extended to a seventh game, as David Freese led off the bottom of the 11th with a solo home run, which enabled Westbrook and the Cardinals to live to fight another day.

You know the rest of the story.

If 2011 and a world championship had not come about, you would have to say that Westbrook had enjoyed a nice career: 11 years in the big leagues, an All-Star team berth and a salary accumulation of $65 million.

Although he was often troubled with injuries, including an injury requiring Tommy John surgery in 2008, Westbrook averaged 10 wins a year throughout his career (from his fourth season in the big leagues at Cleveland) with the Indians and the Cardinals — after having been traded from the Rockies to the Expos to the Yankees, where he never had much of a chance to become established.

If there is one thing he learned growing up in Madison County, it was to take things in stride and persevere. He is soft-spoken, reserved and laid back, giving emphasis to consistency and due diligence.

He always smiles politely, sprinkling all conversations with a litany of “Yessirs.” He appears downright emotionless and totally unfazed — which leads to the conclusion that all this conceals the deep competitive commitment he has for the game.

He wants to win as badly as the next guy, but he always responds to questions like the gentleman he is. Guillén, for example, has probably said more in his first spring with the Marlins than Westbrook has said in his entire career.

In 2011, Westbrook enjoyed a watershed year: 12 wins, a World Series ring, and a Grand Slam home run against the Brewers August 31 in Milwaukee — but there is no photo of him stepping on home plate hanging on his basement wall.

Over the winter, he did not drink the heady wine that came with being the pitching hero in Game 6. He lost 15 pounds and came to spring training in, perhaps, the best shape of his career. He doesn’t say how much longer he will play. The money is too good, and his sinker has too much movement to start thinking about retiring.

“Baseball is a lot of fun,” he said as he watched his kids romp in the grass following a recent spring game. “Last year made it worth it. To be able to contribute to the team’s success and to get credit for winning a World Series game was icing on the cake.”

There is an interesting vignette, which he has probably never thought of. The hero in Game 6 was Freese, who hit the game-winning home run in what many are now saying is one of the greatest World Series games in history.

Westbrook did his job, and by retiring the side became the blocker who enabled the runner to score the touchdown to win the game.

What does our laconic hero from Madison County say about that?

“It’s a team game.”