Indians ace Justin Masterson hasn't started for a month, due to an oblique strain he suffered on September 2nd. On September 25th he returned to the field for the 9th inning of a 7-2 victory, and he also pitched in two of the Tribe's games against Minnesota in the final weekend of the regular season. He pitched 3.2 innings over those 3 appearances, allowing no runs on only 1 hit, striking out 7 while walking just 1.
Masterson hasn't yet rebuilt the endurance to go anything close to a full game, but Terry Francona says Masterson is available tonight to take over after Danny Salazar, and pitching coach Mickey Callaway says Masterson is cleared to throw as many as four innings, if his pitch count is reasonable.
"When Masty got healthy, we acquired a guy that can pitch out of the bullpen multiple innings. So we went from really feeling like we'd lost one of our key guys to gaining a huge weapon. And that's the way we kind of plan on using him."
- Terry Francona
Obviously 7 innings is better than 4, but given the specific circumstances, what role is Masterson most valuable in for the Indians tonight and (baseball gods willing) going forward this postseason?
Even if you think the team should look to work him back into the rotation for a potential playoff run beyond this evening, there's no reason for him not to be used in a relief role tonight, should the right situation arise (if Salazar wants to just go the distance, that's fine by me). What's 'the right situation?' Anything that calls for a reliever to throw more than an inning, Masterson should get the call. Salazar has had a couple games this year where his stuff was electric and the results were strong, but he was done by the end of the 4th inning. If Salazar throws even 3 or 4 strong innings but runs into some trouble in his second time through the heart of Tampa Bay's order, I wouldn't hesitate to put Masterson in, hoping to get through the lineup once and turn the game over to other relievers in the 7th or 8th.
For argument's sake, what if Salazar pitches well, and manages to get through 7 innings? Do you bring Masterson in for the 8th or 9th? Or, do you instead stick with the team's top relievers from the regular season, some combination of Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, and Joe Smith?
Two weeks ago, for better or for worse, Chris Perez had that job, and baseball managing being what it is, I don't think Francona would have given anyone else the ball if the Indians were ahead in the 9th inning. Perez flamed out though, and while he'll be on the 25-man roster tonight, it's unlikely he enters the game. Francona is freed from having to worry about typical roles, and can use whomever he sees fit.
Given that Masterson is unlikely to build back up to 100+ pitches before the season's end. Given that Salazar, Ubaldo Jimenez, Corey Kluber, and Scott Kazmir are all entirely capable of pitching 6 or 7 strong innings on any given night, I'm coming around on the idea of Justin Masterson, relief ace, not just for tonight, but for as far as the Tribe is able to push this thing.
The question of whom to bring for a save situation tonight would be quite a wonderful problem to have (not quite as wonderful as a 6-run lead, but still pretty darn nice). I don't think there's anyone I'd rather see on the mound in that moment tonight than Masterson.