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Westbrook hopeful after winter ball

CLEVELAND -- Jake Westbrook spent part of his offseason in sunny, tropical Puerto Rico. He didn't go there to work on his tan.

Westbrook, who hasn't pitched for the Cleveland Indians since May 2008, tested his surgically repaired right elbow by playing winter ball for the first time in his career. He came away after four starts on the island convinced he's on track and encouraged his arm can withstand the grind of a major league season.

"My elbow felt great," Westbrook said Wednesday from his home in Georgia. "It was probably the best it's felt at any time during my rehab. It was very encouraging."

Westbrook is penciled in to start for the Indians on Opening Day, a potential assignment the 33-year-old is cherishing as much as any other since breaking into the big leagues. He has endured grueling hours of rehab and had a few setbacks since undergoing Tommy John surgery on June 12, 2008.

It's been a long road back for Westbrook, who won 44 games for Cleveland from 2004 to 2006.

It's almost over.

"This has taught me a lot of patience," Westbrook said of his time away. "It's been very frustrating. When you start the whole process and you have a timetable for yourself -- I didn't meet any of those expectations for myself. This has helped me realize that nothing's given in this game and nothing should be taken for granted."

Westbrook had hoped to pitch last season, but was limited to just three minor league starts before the Indians shut him down. Normally, it takes 12 to 18 months for a pitcher to return from ligament replacement surgery, but by the time Westbrook steps back atop a major league mound, it will be nearly two years.

Westbrook said he was able to make all of his pitches during his winter-ball stint and his fastball was consistently clocked in the 90 mph range. New Indians manager Manny Acta visited him during his stay in the Caribbean.

"I really liked what I saw from Jake in PR," Acta said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "His pitching coach, Ricky Bones, was nice enough to allow me to see Jake's warmup before the game. He threw free and easy with very good command of all of his pitches, to me that's a good sign of being pain-free.

"He had his usual good sink and induced plenty of groundballs, after the game I could tell by his face expression that he was happy with the way things were going. And so was I."

Westbrook liked more than his velocity and command.

"What was most encouraging was meeting all my requirements and feeling good the next day," the sinkerballer said. "I feel good about what I was able to do."

Westbrook built up to 80 pitches per game and said he wants to improve his arm strength before spring training opens next month. He has already begun his throwing program, pitching to his father the way he did as a kid.

Since Westbrook last pitched in the majors, the Indians have been overhauled. The team traded Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia (to the Yankees) and Cliff Lee (to the Phillies, now with the Mariners), creating a void at the top of the rotation that Westbrook hopes he can fill.

"I just want to help this team win anyway I can," he said. "I'm ready to go, man."