Masterson an Ace in the Hole for Indians in October

Since the return of Justin Masterson from a left oblique injury sustained in an early September start, there have been questions about how Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona would use his number one starter.

Cleveland received a giant shot in the arm last week when Masterson rejoined the pitching staff after missing three weeks with the injury. The team was cautious with the starter after he left in the second inning of his September 2nd start against the Baltimore Orioles. He faced just five batters in that appearance, walking the leadoff hitter in the first and giving up a single to start the second to his final batter.

After being shut down for nine days, he threw several sessions from 90 and 120 feet before throwing a 33-pitch bullpen session and a simulated game on Sunday, September 22nd. He rejoined the team that week as a member of the bullpen, with many believing that the Indians would use the opportunity to have him pitch in live games while stretching him back out to starter innings in the event that the Indians made the playoffs.

With that now accomplished, the Indians are in an interesting situation regarding how they use their Opening Day starter in the team’s first playoff game since being defeated by Francona and his Boston Red Sox in the 2007 American League Championship Series.

Francona was able to utilize Masterson three different times in relief before the season ended Sunday.

His first outing on September 25th, to a loud ovation from 30,942 fans in attendance in the ninth inning of the final regular season home game at Progressive Field, was just what the team could have asked for. He faced four batters and threw 17 pitches, ten for strikes, in an inning of work. He allowed a hit to left-hander Jordan Danks of the Chicago White Sox, but struck out a pair swinging.

Two days later against Minnesota, Masterson was called upon in the eighth inning. He again worked an inning and faced four batters. Eighteen of his 25 pitches were for strikes and three different Twins were frozen by strikeouts looking. The only blemish on his stat line on the evening was a leadoff walk on a 3-2 pitch to Trevor Plouffe.

In game 162, with the opportunity to clinch the American League Wild Card top spot and to avoid a tiebreaker scenario on Monday, Masterson was again the man for Francona in the middle of the diamond. Brought on in relief with one out in the eighth inning, Masterson retired five of the six batters he faced. His first batter, Brian Dozier, was hit by a 1-2 pitch. Masterson then retired the next five in order, including another two strikeouts looking. In a fitting moment, he made the final out covering at first base, fielding a throw from a diving Jason Kipnis, allowing him to make both the first and final pitches of the 2013 regular season. He threw 23 pitches in the outing, 13 for strikes.

In total, Masterson pitched three and two-thirds innings in his three relief performances. He allowed just three of the 14 batters he faced to reach (one hit, one walk, one hit by pitch). Seven of the 14 were retired by strikeouts.

As a starter, Masterson compiled a 14-10 record this season, leading the pitching staff in wins (14) and innings pitched (189 1/3) while earning his first All-Star game appearance in July. His 188 strikeouts as a starter were second on the team to the 194 of Ubaldo Jimenez, although Masterson’s 195 total strikeouts on the season gave him the highest total for the team in 2013.

Masterson has now led the Indians in strikeouts in each of the last four seasons. His 195 this year was a new career high and the most by a Cleveland pitcher since CC Sabathia struck out 209 in 2007. With 193 innings pitched this season, he has logged the most innings of an Indians pitcher for the third consecutive season.

Including his efforts this year, Masterson now has a 3-4 record out of the bullpen with a 3.12 ERA in 62 career appearances.

When facing batters his first two times through the lineup this year, he has held hitters to a .205 batting average. During opportunities to see Masterson a third or fourth time in the same game, the opponent’s batting average jumps to .259.

Opposing batters hit .222 against him this season. He averaged more than two and a half strikeouts for every one walk and was substantially more effectively against right-handed batters, who hit .182 against him and struck out four and a half times more frequently than they walked.

His dominance of right-handed hitters of late as well as throughout the season makes him an intriguing right-handed arm out of Francona’s bullpen, even if he may not be slated there permanently in the event that the Indians advance beyond Wednesday’s AL Wild Card matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays.

While his absence from the starting rotation may be felt, the performances of the entire staff, one through five, plus the addition of the young fireballer Danny Salazar, makes his inability to start games at the present time much less of an issue. If Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway elect instead to leave him in a relief role, the team will undoubtedly benefit from having his arm available for more frequent appearances of several innings at a time. He could be more than a viable arm out of the bullpen to pick up the slack caused by a short outing from another starter in the rotation, and his ability to pitch multiple innings would take some strain off of a postseason pitching staff.

Masterson would not be the first starter to potentially influence his club’s postseason chances out of the bullpen.

Just last year, the San Francisco Giants were in a dilemma with starting pitcher and two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. The right-hander, known for his violent delivery and flowing locks, had a tough year on the mound, posting a 10-15 record with a 5.18 ERA. The 15 losses were the highest of his career and led the National League, while his ERA mark was a career worst. He also led the NL in walks (90) and the MLB in wild pitches (17), one higher than Jimenez’s 16.

Despite the season-long struggles, Lincecum still led the NL in starts, struck out the tenth highest total number of batters (193) in the league, and averaged the sixth-highest total of strikeouts per nine innings (9.19) in all of baseball.

Unable to count on him in the playoff rotation due to his inconsistent results on the mound during the season, Giants manager Bruce Bochy elected to keep Lincecum on the roster but to utilize him out of the bullpen. The decision paid off.

In the National League Division Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Lincecum appeared in a 4-0 game in relief of Madison Bumgarner. He pitched two scoreless innings and allowed just one hit while striking out a pair. The Giants went on to lose, 9-0, to fall behind two games to none in the series.

Three days later, he earned the win in Game 4 to even the series at two. Starter Barry Zito did not make it out of the third inning and Lincecum was brought on in relief in the bottom of the fourth with two on and two outs in a 3-2 ball game. He went on to give the Giants four and one-third innings of work, allowing one run on two hits and striking out six.

He appeared in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against St. Louis and pitched two more scoreless innings, again in relief of Bumgarner, allowing a walk and striking out one in a 6-4 loss. His efforts earned him a Game 4 start, but those results (four and two-thirds innings pitched; four earned runs allowed on six hits with three walks and three strikeouts) paled in comparison to his previous three relief efforts and netted the Giants a loss.

He pitched twice more after that losing effort, both in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. He pitched in Game 1 and Game 3 and did not allow a hit or a run in either effort. Both outings were two and one-third innings in length. He struck out five of the seven batters he faced in Game 1 and struck out three and walked one in Game 3, earning a hold in a 2-0 win.

The Giants went on to win Game 4 to complete the sweep of the Detroit Tigers to win the World Series.

The Indians will need to find good use of a pitcher of Masterson’s ilk. The team is better with him on the mound, regardless of whether it comes with him taking the ball as the game’s starter or if it is handed off to him by Francona later on in the game.

With their ace back in fray, Francona has a wild card to play in Wednesday night’s matchup.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I attended my first in 2007 in the ALCS and they are both experiences I will never forget. Hoping for you and all of Indians fans across the world that they knock out the Rays and the atmosphere is even more impressive than that of the Pirates tonight at PNC.

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