Hard Work and Adjustments Help Masterson Lead Tribe Rotation
By Mike Brandyberry
Leaders emerge through hard work and the humility to adjust when times are tough.
While Justin Masterson emerged as the Cleveland Indians staff ace a year ago, he had some bumps in the road early this season before finding his groove as the leader of the rotation this summer.
Masterson is 7-8, with a 4.12 ERA this season, but really feels he has had only two rough games, each against the Tampa Bay Rays. Aside from those two games, his problem has been just a poor inning at different times. Regardless of numbers, he’s been the staff ace and leader of the rotation. He’ll takes to the mound this evening in Minnesota in hopes to keep the Tribe in the playoff chase.
In his last start on Monday against the Baltimore Orioles, Masterson threw seven and one-third innings, scattering seven hits and allowing only one run and earning the win in Cleveland’s 3-1 victory.
“As a whole it has been good,” Masterson said. “Even as we have gone throughout the entire season, there’s been some bad overall games, it looked like. But aside from two games, just one inning in each of those games were bad. More or less the majority of the time, I’ve been doing great. At one point, 90 percent of the runs I’ve given up had come in 1 percent of the innings.”
Masterson’s season started on Opening Day, and he looked as dominant as one could possibly look. He pitched eight innings, allowing only two hits and striking out 10. According to Baseball-Reference, he was only the third pitcher since 1918 to put together that line score on Opening Day. He left the game leading 4-1 over the Toronto Blue Jays, but Chris Perez and the bullpen could not hold the lead, and the Tribe eventually lost in 16 innings.
“Personally, it’s not disappointing at all, because that is the nature of baseball,” Masterson said. “As a team, you’re upset because it’s Opening Day and you want to win that game. We were close, and again, that’s how crazy baseball is. It’s just happens to be one of the two blown saves our closer has. It happens.”
What happened for Masterson were three bumpy starts, resulting in two losses and a no decision, making him winless to start the season and holding a 6.65 ERA. According to Indians Manager Manny Acta, Masterson made some mechanical changes in his delivery, and the results began to show on April 27 when he went eight and one-third innings, allowing four hits and two runs against the Los Angeles Angels. According to Masterson, the adjustments were just minor in nature.
“You never really make any serious mechanical adjustments,” Masterson said. “Really there is a point where you get scared and worry if you need to make some major adjustments or just some minor tweaks, and that’s what we did, made some minor tweaks. That’s what you do whether you’re feeling good or not. You’re always going to have some minor bumps.”
Since his adjustments and his April 27 start, he’s posted a 3.80 ERA in 16 starts and has logged at least six full innings in every start except those two appearances against Tampa. On the Indians, that’s a big benchmark, because normally bullpen pitchers Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Perez take care of the final three frames of a Tribe victory. Masterson feels it’s his responsibility to pitch at least six innings and get the game to the back end of the bullpen.
“That’s kind of the goal, for me to get six,” Masterson said. “That kind of helps the bullpen out and keeps things in perspective. Whether I’m doing good or not, that’s always the benchmark. You see the good pitchers, even if they give up a lot of runs, they still are able to get through to the sixth or seventh. That’s kind of been my goal, especially after some struggles — whatever you do, just make it to the sixth.”
While Masterson feels his adjustments were minor, he attributes his turnaround and summer success as a result of all the hard work he puts in on the days he does not pitch.
“That’s when you do all your work,” Masterson said. “In general, it’s just being an athlete. In Little League, you show up 15 to 20 minutes before the game and wear your jersey home. It’s not really like that.”
For a 7:05p.m. start, Masterson says he normally gets to the ballpark at around 12:30 or 1 p.m. to get in all of his running and exercising. Taking care of your body and being physically ready to pitch again four days after a start can be a grind.
“Most guys get here about one or two o’clock,” Masterson said. “In between the starts is when you do all the work, going through your lifting, your running, your throwing, your stuff in the training room, the icing, the exercises and the stretching.”
The off-days hard work has paid off. Masterson has seen his innings total as a big leaguer increase each season, and he has never made a trip to the disabled list, something he is very proud of.
“You can’t just go out there,” Masterson said. “You have to keep your body in the right spot. It’s so difficult, because you play 162 games, as a starter you want to start 35 of them. Each time you want to feel your best, which you don’t, but that’s the way to do it. The day you start is really a relaxing day because you just have to work while you’re out there.”
Tonight Masterson will need to relax and try to shut down the Minnesota Twins and help the Tribe rebound from a 11-0 loss last night. The Indians are at .500 with only 62 games remaining. If they intend to make the playoffs, they need to take advantage of the final two games against the Twins and next three against the Kansas City Royals.
“I just need to be in the strike zone,” Masterson said. “It’s easier said than done, especially with the movement I have. More or less be around the zone and making good pitches. Making sure there’s conviction behind all the pitches I have.”
Photo: J. Meric/Getty Images