After two days off due to rain and two more days before that where the starting pitching failed to show up, we were all hopeful that the Tribe would regroup. Behind their ace, they did just that. Justin Masterson turned his third stellar start to begin the 2013 campaign, going the distance and blanking the White Sox. The Indians squeezed across a run in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off single by Nick Swisher that scored Michael Bourn to give the Tribe a 1-0 victory. With that, the Indians are a perfect 3-0 with Masterson on the hill, and we’re seeing the big right-hander as dominant as he’s been in a Cleveland uniform.
This was a classic battle between Masterson and young lefty Jose Quintana for the White Sox. Both hurlers worked efficiently and racked up the strikeouts, scattering a few baserunners each. For Masterson, it was the biting break on his sinker that forced hitters to beat the ball into the ground primarily, when they were making contact, that is. Throwing those breaking sliders for a strike (or close to it) while also deploying the 94 mph sinking heat at times really made a usually potent Sox lineup uncomfortable. Of Masterson’s seven strikeouts, six came on the slider with a wide array of Sox coming up to the dish and looking fooled. Francona said of his starter, “He threw an obscene amount of strikes. [The] two-seamer had a lot of depth to it. [The] four-seamer had some ride and life. His breaking ball was very good. He’s attacking the zone. He’s quick to the plate when a runner gets on. It was fun to watch. It was really good.”
Masty, of course, got a little help from his improved defense, including a first-inning assist by Michael Brantley, who threw out Alex Rios by playing the ball bare-handed perfectly off the 19-foot wall in left. Newcomer catcher Yan Gomes also threw out a stealing Alexei Ramirez in the sixth. Then, of course, he helped himself as well with runners on. He coaxed a double play ball in the third to end the inning after a leadoff single. When Conor Gillaspie leadoff the eighth with a double, Masterson fired a devastatingly wicked sinker in on the handle of Alexei Ramirez’s bat to force his bunt attempt to pop straight up and land safely in the glove of Gomes. That prevented the runner from getting to third with one out, and Masterson went on to get out of the jam.
Masterson got ahead (71% first pitch strikes), and he stayed ahead (72% strikes on the evening), and it allowed him to go the distance instead of handing it off to the bullpen. Credit Tribe skipper Terry Francona for sending the locked-in Masterson back out there with 101 pitches and eight innings of work under his belt. It’s a little unnerving to do that so early in the year, but Masterson is a workhorse, and the bullpen (lefty Rich Hill) was at the ready. Surprisingly enough, after two days where no one pitched, it wasn’t Chris Perez wasn’t throwing. Do we finally have a manager that won’t automatically throw his closer in a tie game in the top of the ninth? This writer can only hope. On his decision to bring Justin back out for the ninth, Terry added, “By the fact we let him face Dunn in that situation shows how much confidence we have [in him], because we have complete confidence in our bullpen, as everyone knows. I just thought he deserved to pitch there.”
As for Quintana, he continued his success against the Indians. In 4 career games now (2 starts), he has hurled 19 1/3 innings against Cleveland and allowed just 2 runs and 6 hits while walking 5 and striking out 14. He allowed just one hit while striking out seven (four of those called third strikes) and hitting one batter. He got a little more help from his defense, though both teams had outstanding plays there. I can recall three balls hit to the corner outfielders in particular that may have been a double against most outfields. Both Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley sent left fielder Dayan Viciedo into an over the shoulder catch on the warning track in left field, and Kipnis added a well-hit ball deep into right field that Alex Rios had to make a snow-cone catch on running in full stride in the 7th. Perhaps it was those close calls off the bat of Kipnis that setup the heroics in the ninth inning.
Quintana was chased from the game after 98 pitches and seven innings. Matt Thornton blew through the eighth with ease in 1-2-3 fashion. Then, after Masterson came back out for the ninth and shutdown the Sox one last time, Chicago manager Robin Ventura went to Jesse Crain for the bottom of the ninth inning. After retiring Drew Stubbs on a called third strike that was questionable, it was Michael Bourn that reached base with a bloop double into shallow left field. Asdrubal Cabrera then grounded out to second after being ahead in the count 2-1, though it did move Bourn to third. Then, things got interesting.
Instead of pitching to the left-handed Kipnis, who was 0-for-3 on the night and hitting just .125 on the season, Crain missed with three sliders low and then intentionally put Kipnis on base to pitch to switch-hitter Nick Swisher, a now .258 hitter and a much more experienced and disciplined hitter. Swisher jumped on the first-pitch heater inside and sent it down the right field line as it landed just inside the line. The celebration was a fun one to watch as Bourn crossed the plate and Swisher leaped into the air and celebrated with Kipnis.
Swisher was the late hero, but the night truly belonged to Masterson. He seems to have found his form again under his former skipper. In three starts, he’s walked just 8 and struck out 20 while allowing just one earned run. Buster Olney points out this morning that the last Indian to do that while winning his first three outings was Luis Tiant in 1966. Peter Gammons added that lefties (Masterson’s general Kyrptonite, if you will) are batting just .146 off of him. That’s a huge difference for Masterson if he can continue to retire lefties with the same regularity as righties. Sure, the stats are going to come back to earth a bit, and Masterson’s current 19-inning scoreless streak will end, but the underlying success and pitching mindset from Justin right now can undoubtedly stick around. Now, it’s up to the rest of the starters to put out the dumpster fire in the other 80% of the rotation.
Zach McAllister is the first to get back on the hill, where he will face Chris Sale for Chicago.