CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 29: Starting pitcher Justin Masterson #63 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Progressive Field on May 29, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
For the first time this season, Justin Masterson did not walk a batter.
Thus ends the good news. Masterson was hammered by one of the worst offenses in the league. In 11 starts this season, Masterson has regressed to the version prior to his sparkling 2011 campaign. It wasn't long ago that Masterson was a subject for debate: Starter, or ROOGY? Left-handed batters crushed him. Last year he took care of that, but in 2012, lefties are OPSing 100 points higher than a year ago.
Mike Moustakas is not sold on Masterson, for one. Moustakas hit what appeared to be a pretty good pitch for a two-run blast in the first, then missed a three-run bomb by roughly a foot in his next at bat. After that long foul ball, he lined a single to right to plate two runs. The route was on, and the game was essentially over. The Indians were fielding a lineup that featured a bottom half that couldn't hit sand if it fell off a camel. Masterson needed to be much sharper.
So what's going on with the Tribe ace? It starts with velocity. In 2011, Masterson regularly hit 93-95 on the high end. Fangraphs confirms that he's at his lowest velocity since 2008, about two MPH slower. This is not an easy thing to chart, as Masterson mixes his fastballs and therefore isn't throwing just one version of the heater. But he's not blowing batters away too often. He struck out eight Royals tonight, but he was touched up on a series of pitches that seemed sluggish and over the plate. To wit, does anyone know what the hell that pitch was that Masterson threw to Giavotella that become a line-smash RBI single in the second? It was 88mph, up, juicy. Masterson's slider sits in the low 80s. This seemed to be a hanging slowball.
Five days ago, after beating Justin Verlander, Masterson ripped his own ability. We're wading into dangerous territory here, analyzing psychology. But it was hardly the swagger of an ace. He had just fought through a wild outing to beat the planet's best, but instead of saying, "We know we can beat anyone, and I want the ball. I'll stare down the corpse of Cy Young if he shows up next week," Masterson politely offered the following about himself and his opponent:
"He's been blessed with such great ability. I'm working with, like, one pitch. He's got like four Hall of Fame pitches."
That's what a pitcher says when he knows he got lucky against a better man. Perhaps that's what a pitcher says when he's simply a nice guy, admitting the truth. But Masterson's team needs him to be mean, strong, dominant. Now is not the time to shrug and say, "I don't have much stuff, but I try!"
In August of 2011, Tribe fans celebrated having not just one ace, but two. Today it's fair to question whether Masterson evolved into an ace in 2011 or if the league has simply readjusted to a guy who admits to having, like, one pitch. We've seen Masterson enough to know that an ace is in there.
Oh, and as for the rest of the game: There must be a better option somewhere in Cleveland, Columbus, or Akron than Aaron Cunningham. Juan Diaz plays defense as if his glove is made of kevlar. And Jeremy Accardo looks so good that Dan Wheeler might consider sending a basket of I'm Sorry flowers for taking up a roster spot for so long.
Wednesday's noon contest offers the Tribe a chance to win the series; losing the series to the Royals, after getting pantsed in Chicago, would be especially tenderizing.