It had been quite the passage of time since an Indians pitcher ran out of the bullpen in the ninth inning and was welcomed by a standing ovation complete with raucous cheering. Such was the case on a crisp, late-September night in Cleveland when the bullpen door gave way to Justin Masterson, the 6-foot-6-inch ace hurler for the Tribe who was making his first appearance since succumbing to an oblique injury earlier in the month. High socks and all, Masterson jogged to the mound while fans, understandably enjoying the team’s multi-run lead in the midst of a playoff hunt, welcomed him back with open arms.
A perfect storm, really. One night after the team’s polarizing closer Chris Perez blew a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning only to leave the field while being pelted by a chorus of boos, Masterson—essentially the antithesis of Perez in every way but employer—came in with his team up considerably. There was an absence of pressure. The fans were exuding an energy that had long been missing from the confines of Progressive Field. It was, in fact, the team’s final home game of the regular season—who better to close it out than the man who ushered this crazy, roller coaster of a season in by throwing the team’s first pitch?
“It was kind of cool,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of the reception for Masterson.
Masterson took to the mound and wasted no time in showing that an oblique injury would not affect how live his right arm was. After fanning his first two hitters with a litany of sinkers and sliders that could only best be described as “disgusting,” the 28-year-old induced a ground out to end the game in front of 31,000 elated Clevelanders. With 17 pitches thrown, Masterson’s night ended with a high-five from catcher Yan Gomes who simply muttered “Welcome back” to the tower of a right-hander as the two men exchanged handshakes with the rest of the Wahoos. And with just 17 pitches thrown, Masterson immediately entered the discussion for who, if not Perez, could be trusted to come out of the bullpen in the event the Cleveland Indians direly needed to record outs late in a winnable contest.
Masterson, a former relief pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, had not come out of the bullpen since July of 2011. When he first arrived in Cleveland, his splits suggested that he would ultimately return to the ‘pen as left-handed batters were his kryptonite. But given the emergence of Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, the consistency of Scott Kazmir and Zach McAllister, and the jaw-dropping rebirth of Ubaldo Jimenez, the team is left with a terrific problem: Given their five-deep rotation that has been one of the best in MLB since the All-Star break, Masterson can serve as a power-armed relief pitcher in a bullpen that has had its fair share of hiccups. He could, if needed, serve as the team’s closer.
“”It worked out pretty well,” said Francona. We went from our ace being hurt to all of a sudden having a weapon—and we will use him. He can be a big part of what we’re doing.”
Having a player as selfless as Masterson undoubtedly has its advantages. Couple his selflessness with his size, stature and the speed and movement of his fastball and it is that much better. The team’s plan is to keep him in a “long relief” role, particularly useful with the careful handling of the 23-year-old Salazar and his much-discussed pitch limits. Francona has stated that he does not intend on removing Perez from his ninth-inning duties, refusing to change what has worked this late into the season. But just as teams have used future starters in late-inning relief roles, and done so with great success, it will be hard to not take advantage of Masterson’s litany of pitches in a high-leverage, late-game situation if indeed said situation does arise. The Tampa Bay Rays utilized David Price late into the postseason; St. Louis has a World Series championship attached to their name large in part to Adam Wainwright’s massively effective curveball. Adding Masterson’s sinker to the mix wouldn’t be groundbreaking, but it would be very bold and could prove to be very effective into October.
If the Indians take care of business over the course of the next few days, Masterson will get his shot, potentially doing so against his former team. Oddly enough, it was a four-game series against the Red Sox where things spiraled a bit out of control for Perez and the Tribe bullpen. Masterson could not only be a part of the retribution, but may very well be the man who, once again, closes it all out in front of a packed house. The game is funny like that.
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)