By: T.J. Zuppe
When simplified, the ace pitcher on a baseball team is supposed to do two things – stop losing skids and start winning streaks. That is exactly what Indians right-handed starter Justin Masterson has done once this year.
He will be counted on to do it again on Friday, in the series opener with the Baltimore Orioles at Progressive Field.
Masterson has been masterful in his two starts, working a total of 13.1 innings, scattering 11 hits, surrendering only two earned runs. He picked up wins in both outings, and has commanded his pitches beautifully, striking out nine, while only walking three.
He was the man responsible for putting an end to the two game slide that began the season, setting the tone for the team to reel off eight-straight wins.
His dominance has not just been in 2011, as he finished 2010 strong. In fact, in Masterson’s last 15 games, 10 of which starts, he is 5-3 with an earned run average of 2.57.
That performance has silenced critics (myself included) that said he was better suited for a setup role, in the Indians bullpen.
Last season seemed to back those thoughts, especially when leading into August, Masterson was 3-10. His earned run average was a bloated 5.55.
Yet, seemingly through those tough trials, he has began to understand what it is to pitch, not just throw. After all, no one had a single doubt about his stuff.
But could he learn how to control it?
He has answered that question in his first two starts with an emphatic yes.
Now, keep in mind another starter that experienced a rocky first 57 games in the big leagues. That gentleman was 13-14, with an ERA of 5.77, in that span.
His name? Roy Halladay.
The moral of that story is, do not be so quick to write off a pitcher with incredible stuff. Patience is a virtue with talent like that, a lesson that even I need to remind myself constantly.
Entering this season, one of the biggest concerns for this team has been the unknown elements of the starting rotation.
At first glance, the Tribe starting-five is constructed of mostly three-to-five starters, without that true horse to matchup with other squads’ top hurlers. If Masterson’s performance begins to match his nasty stuff, then the opposition will begin to take note.
A big reason for the 26-year old’s improvement lies in his approach. Through all of the criticism in his production, or lack thereof, the big righty never questioned his ability, or made excuses.
He has stood tall in the locker room in defeat, in the same manner he has held his head high after a victory – always looking for a way to get better, and answering every question with the utmost respect.
Slowly, but surely, that has started to translate on the mound.
Now where does he go from here? In the same direction he has been going – upwards.
Every outing is a new opportunity to build on the foundations he has laid recently, in the middle of the diamond. Each start is a step towards what the team hopes is an ace in the making.
Back-to-back outstanding efforts are a great way to kick off 2011. Now will he be able to three-peat? Can it be put together into a good half season, before stretching it into the entire campaign?
Time will render the ultimate decision. For the Indians’ pitcher, the focus can only be on one thing – the Baltimore Orioles at 7:05PM Friday, at Progressive Field.
Mr. Masterson, the floor is yours.
Follow T.J. Zuppe on Twitter @TJZuppe