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Masterson's easygoing nature belies toughness

Indians' Opening Day starter has had to fight perception that he is too nice

SAN DIEGO -- There are often preconceived notions about a pastor's kid. Indians starter Justin Masterson knows them well. One he dealt with during his youth was the belief that he was too easygoing off the field -- and too religious -- to display toughness out on a pitching mound.

During a game Masterson still recalls vividly from his high school days, he let one of his coaches know that was not the case.

"He said something about me never hitting anybody with a pitch," Masterson said. "I was too nice. All that type of stuff. So I looked at him and I said, 'Oh, is that so? I'll hit the first guy for you.' I hit the first guy and just looked at him.

"Not that it really proved the point, but the fact of the matter is it doesn't make me weak, it makes me stronger."

Masterson does not need to prove his strength these days.

Come Monday, he will be on the hill in Oakland, taking on the A's in his third consecutive Opening Day start for Cleveland. Last summer, the big sinkerballer earned a spot on the American League All-Star team for the first time and continued to assert himself as a leader on the field and in the clubhouse during the Tribe's run to the playoffs.

This might very well be Masterson's final season with the Indians, considering extension talks broke down during Spring Training, and the Indians do not plan on revisiting things until the offseason. It is a situation that could have weighed Masterson down during the spring, but he pushed the distractions aside and turned in a stellar preseason slate.

That is Masterson's mental toughness on display.

"Masty has got his act together," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I've never seen somebody that seems to have his priorities in order as much as Masty."

Francona is quick to cite Masterson's solid upbringing, and the pitcher would not disagree.

The son of a minister and teacher, Masterson still marvels at the way his parents, Mark and Judy, have selflessly lived their lives. The pitcher saw his dad walk away from a church he had led, because he felt it was the only way it might have a chance to grow. Masterson said his mom would offer her last dollar to someone if she thought it would help.

Meanwhile, Masterson is line to earn millions either through free agency or from the Indians.

"I'm more blessed than anything I could imagine," Masterson said. "I'm here playing a game and just blessed beyond belief. Not that we're to compare each other, but my father is so much more faithful and amazing than I could ever imagine to be. I strive to be like him and yet, here I am, being given the means to do so many incredible things."

Masterson never felt forced into Christianity. Yes, church was required on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights -- unless Masterson's basketball games got in the way -- but Rev. Masterson made sure he was simply dad when he came home from work. Masterson would often see his father doing devotions early in the morning.

"And I'd go watch cartoons," the pitcher said with a laugh.

As he got older, Masterson explored various beliefs, but always came back to what he was raised on. While at Bethel College, a small Christian school in Indiana, he went on his first missions trip to the Dominican Republic. That stirred Masterson's passion for helping others -- something he has continued to do as he has ascended the Major League ladder.

Masterson and his wife, Meryl, have made numerous trips back to the D.R. with missions groups. This past offseason, the pitcher traveled overseas to the Mathare Valley slum in Nairobi, Kenya, to help provide food and assistance to children in need. In Cleveland, Masterson is active in a variety of charities and events throughout the season.

During the 2011 and '13 seasons, Masterson was honored as the Indians' recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award for his off-field endeavors.

Francona, who has known Masterson since the right-hander's rookie season with the Red Sox, smiled when asked how he has seen the pitcher mature over the years.

"I actually think Masty was ahead of the game off the field to begin with," Francona said. "When I met him as a young kid, he was already so sharp and so well-grounded. I'm sure, like everybody, you grow and you mature. But, my goodness, this kid started from a pretty good base. It's why he's Masty.

"He's been such a good kid from the moment we met him. When you're a coach or a manager, you can't take credit for Masty."

On the field, Cleveland is pinning much of its hopes this season on Masterson's right arm.

Last season, Masteron led the team with 14 wins, 195 strikeouts and 193 innings, while serving as a mentor to the younger pitchers on the team. In September, the right-hander was taken out of the mix for three weeks due to an oblique injury, but he willingly came back as a reliever and was on the mound when the Tribe clinched its spot in the postseason as the AL's top Wild Card team.

"He embodies everything we want our players to be," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "He's a great teammate, a great person and an exceptional performer."

At times, Masterson still feels like he is fighting against perception, though.

In the aftermath of bad outings or tough losses, Masterson will often force a smile or crack a joke, doing what he can to lighten the mood and keep the focus on the big picture. He has faced criticism for that loose attitude, but he firmly believes it is the only way to handle things.

Masterson says that is when his faith is most important.

"You have people either say that to you or try to push that upon you," Masterson said. "They'll say, 'You didn't show enough emotion,' or, 'You're joking around a little bit.' For me, to help cope with it, as any person, I need to not just dwell on it. That's when it helps having faith and family and kids and all that. It brings it together.

"But, yeah, [in those moments] I'm really frustrated. I'm really, really mad, because I know how blessed I am. No one needs to tell me. Anyone out there can say whatever they want, and it's not any worse than what I've told myself. That's why you have to take a step back and say, 'It's OK, Justin. It's OK. You've got to go out there and do it again.'

"It's realizing what we're called here for, so that you can do the task to help impact some more lives."

Masterson believes he can do that by first impacting the Tribe's season.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.

Cleveland Indians, Justin Masterson