Masterson Gives Francona Another Late-Game Option

Justin Masterson has been the ace of the Cleveland Indians starting rotation this year. He made his first All-Star team and was 14-10 before an oblique injury put him on the shelf on Sep. 2.

On Wednesday, the Tribe right-hander made his return to the mound. He tossed a scoreless ninth inning, striking out two batters. He exhibited a wicked curve ball that kept White Sox hitters off balance.

This came on the heels of closer Chris Perez having another meltdown Tuesday and possibly losing the closer’s role last night. Thankfully, the Indians and their fans, Jason Giambi bailed the team out with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth after Perez had allowed Chicago to tie the game and take the lead in the top half of the frame. After allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning last night in Minnesota, Indians manager Terry Francona said he would have to think about his ninth inning mound man.

Angry Tribe fans booed Perez off the mound on Tuesday. When Masterson entered Wednesday’s contest, he was greeted with a loud ovation by more than 30,000 fans on hand at Progressive Field.

The Indians are entering this weekend in a tight race for one of two American League Wild Card spots. Cleveland, Texas and Tampa Bay have been in tightly-locked race that may very well come down to the season’s final couple games on Saturday and Sunday. Every win is needed for the Tribe to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. Another implosion by Perez could spell doom for the team if the offense can not again bail him out.

Perez has actually been bailed out a handful of times. In blowing five saves this year, a career high, the offense has taken him off the hook and come back to win four of those contests. Joe Smith came on to earn his third save last night.

The Cleveland closer has also looked shaky in the biggest of situations. Tuesday’s near-catastrophe against the Sox  and last night’s collapse are simply the latest examples. Few fans will forget the letdown of Perez’s blown save on Aug. 5 against the Tigers. Entering a four-game series with the Motor City Kitties with a shot at the division title still at stake, the Indians were swept. The disappointing set of games was set up in the first affair. Leading 2-0 in the ninth, the Tribe had dominated the defending AL champions. Perez wound up surrendering four runs as Cleveland went on to lose the game as well as any momentum toward the top of the standings the team had begun to build.

August and September for the ninth-inning specialist have been especially rough. At a time where the cream is supposed to rise to the challenge of a pennant race, Perez has shrunk. He carried a 5.73 ERA in August and has a 6.23 ERA so far this month.

Along with losing leads in critical games, Perez has had quite the infamous season off the field. In early June, while on the disabled list, Perez was arrested for marijuana use. When he came back later in the month, Perez vowed not to talk to the media any longer. This has left his teammates to answer questions and stick up for their teammate when he has had his bad outings. That is not the definition of a team player. For team with such great chemistry, and outsiders view would seem to look at Perez as a guy who could threaten the great clubhouse vibes for a squad that feeds off having a close-knit group.

All of this leads back to Masterson. Masterson has been one of the best, if not the best, hurlers for the Indians this season. He is loved by his teammates and fits the definition of a clubhouse leader. Masty has pitched, with success, out of the bullpen in the past. Relieving is likely where he will be through the rest of the regular season and any postseason games. After the time off, manager Terry Francona is worried about giving his ace starters innings before he has had a chance to get his arm reconditioned for a high pitch count.

Before Masterson’s return, it was suggested in this column last week that he be added to the backend of the pen. Now, it is being suggested that Masterson be used as the team’s closer. Imagine a club’s best starter throwing his best stuff for just one inning. Not only that, Masterson could probably pitch in more consecutive games than your average reliever because he does have a starter’s pedigree. If he threw 20 pitches in relief per night, three straight games would give him 60 – or 40 less than what most starters toss in one evening.

Putting Masterson in the closing role and removing Perez, however, is something Francona is likely not about to do. For better or worse, the Tribe skipper is loyal to his players. He said on Wednesday that the team is still behind Perez and he will continue to use him in save situations. That is understandable. You do not want to ruin the guy’s confidence, especially if a situation were to arise where Masterson was unavailable.

Leaving Perez the closer, at least in name, may not be the popular choice among disgruntled fans. However, it may be the right choice. Masterson in relief, though, does give Francona options he has not had all year when managing late-game situations. Now, if Perez looks shaky out of the chute, the manager can pull him out and go to a Masterson. Perez can be on a much shorter leash with the knowledge that there is another All-Star arm in the bullpen ready to take over.

Also, despite not having an arm stretched out for a starter’s pitch count, Masterson can still throw multiple innings, unlike most relievers. If Masterson were to come into a game in the seventh or eighth inning and look strong, Francona could stick with him more than he could say someone like Cody Allen or Joe Smith who do not usually go more than an inning or two. If Masterson were to hurl a lights-out eighth inning, Francona could justify leaving him on the in the final stanza as if he were pitching a complete game a starter.

Having Masterson in the bullpen gives Francona a lot more options than ever before. Perez may still be the closer, but Masty is now another quality option for the manager to go to in those big, end-of-game situations.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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