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Postseason snub wakeup call for P Westbrook

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook throws during the second inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, April 15, 2012, in St. Louis.
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook throws during the second inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, April 15, 2012, in St. Louis.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — Jake Westbrook's new routine has led to early success this season.

Once a week, but only once, he abandons the no-carbohydrate diet that has helped him shed 20 pounds and splurges for an Italian dinner because his wife is such a good cook. On the mound, every delivery begins the same, with his glove at mid-chest.

Radical change motivated by the St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series pretty much without the right-hander has been working so far. Westbrook is 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA entering Saturday's start at Pittsburgh.

The slimmed-down Westbrook was one of four Cardinals at 2-0, who have helped the NL Central leaders get off to a fast start. The lone exception: former ace Adam Wainwright, is struggling coming off elbow surgery at 0-3 with a 9.88 ERA.

The 34-year-old Westbrook had used a full windup with the bases empty his entire career, and thought that might have led to an erratic release point for his pitches. Teammates also believed he was tipping batters off to what was coming.

"I was still able to have some decent ballgames, but I want to be able to do it over and over and over again," Westbrook said. "I found if I move my hands a little higher I still have rhythm, and I'm not tipping."

Westbrook was 12-9 last season, but with a staff-high 4.66 ERA and several spotty outings and was virtually unused in the Cardinals' title run. He wasn't on the roster for the NL Division and NL championship series and played a small role in the Cardinals' memorable Game 6 comeback victory in the World Series, getting the victory with one inning of scoreless relief.

The ERA was the highest of any full season for Westbrook, a former two-time 15-game winner with the Indians in 2005-06 who's come back from reconstructive elbow surgery and shoulder woes.

New manager Mike Matheny told Westbrook before spring training that he was a "valuable piece" for the team.

"I wanted to reinforce to him his style of pitching, which is the exact same philosophy this organization has, which is pound the bottom of the zone, make guys put it in play," Matheny said recently. "I believe we have the kind of defense that can make a lot of plays for him."

Westbrook averaged less than six innings per start last season and worked seven or more innings just seven times in 33 appearances. This year, he's worked seven innings in both starts.

A year ago, Westbrook said, he was mainly tipping the breaking ball, which is mainly a change of pace delivery for him.

"If they know a breaking ball is coming they know not to swing at it," he said. "They can sit back, see it, or take it."

Westbrook allowed an unearned run in seven innings in his first start of 2012 at Cincinnati, and one run in seven innings against the Cubs in his second start.

He was ahead in the count most of the time in his second start, throwing first-pitch strikes to nine of the first 11 hitters, and counting a double play accumulated 13 groundball outs.

"It was just ground ball out after ground ball out, and he backed it up with a little cutter and little slider," the Cubs' Joe Mather said. "We didn't have enough good at-bats until the middle of the game."

Westbrook had trouble finding the strike zone early in his 2012 debut because he was "all geeked up." In his second start, it was strike one all day long.

"I felt good about where I was from the first inning on," Westbrook said. "I'm just trying to continue on with that whole format."

Westbrook isn't sure exactly how the new diet is helping the sinking fastball that he pounds at hitters when everything's working, although he's been able to be more precise with his mechanics. He definitely feels lighter on his feet, and that combined with the results has boosted his confidence.

As for his pants size, Westbrook hasn't lost a couple of inches because the uniforms have a new design.

"Actually, it's the same," he said. "These new pants are a little tighter this year, but that's OK. I don' mind it."