In fourth inning, right-hander strikes out side on just nine pitches
CLEVELAND -- Brimming with confidence as he strolled back into the dugout, Justin Masterson knew he had just struck out the side. But it wasn't until Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway congratulated the towering right-hander that he realized just how razor-sharp efficient he had been the previous inning.
Masterson threw nine pitches. All nine were strikes, and with them he struck out a trio of Red Sox batters in the fourth inning of Monday night's 3-2 win at Progressive Field. Callaway wanted to see more.
"I didn't know it was nine pitches," Masterson said. "I knew I punched out the side. [Callaway] said, 'I think you should do that every time.' That sounds great. No, in the moment, I didn't realize it. I just realized it was strike, strike, see you."
First, Masterson sat down Jonny Gomes with a sequence of fastball, fastball, slider. Former Tribe standout Grady Sizemore was the next victim, taking a sinker and fouling off a fastball before whiffing on a slider. And with Stephen Drew's miss on yet another 0-2 slider, Masterson had made team history.
According to research by the Indians, Masterson became just the 70th pitcher in Major League history (and the first for Cleveland) to sit down three straight on nine strikes in an inning. He's the third player to pull off the feat this season.
"He had his sinker working, slider working," Tribe outfielder Michael Bourn said. "He's tough to beat when he's like that. He was pounding the strike zone a lot."
The 29-year-old's nine-pitch inning also came amid a streak of 25 consecutive strikes, which lasted from A.J. Pierzynski's double play in the third until the second pitch of David Ortiz's at-bat in the sixth. As it ended, audible groans could be heard from Indians fans.
Initially, Masterson's outing looked like it would be anything but dominant. He made it through the first unscathed, but not before escaping a bases-loaded jam by catching Gomes looking on a 3-2 fastball. Through the first three innings, the right-hander had issued four walks while stranding five men on base.
And then, after escaping trouble yet again in the third, a switch flipped.
Masterson went on to allow just one baserunner over his final four frames while fanning six of the last 12 batters he faced for a season-high 10 strikeouts. He ended his night with seven scoreless innings on three hits against the defending World Series champion Red Sox in his longest outing since May 3.
"We talked a little bit earlier about how the first three innings, he kind of cruises and then he runs into a tough spot," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Boy, did he ever [turn it around]. He's facing a bunch of left-handers. He stayed down. He started changing speeds. He just attacked the strike zone."
For a pitcher who had gone 0-3 with a 8.84 ERA in his previous four starts, Masterson's performance was a pleasant surprise for the Tribe and the pitcher himself.
"Yeah, we've done a couple things to try to allow me to get comfortable," Masterson said, "to be able to feel the ball out front. It took a second or two to kind of get that good feel, as we've just been working on it in-between these starts. It was good. Even in the seventh inning, I still had stuff behind the ball and things were moving good. Whatever, however many pitches we were at, I still felt strong."
And Masterson should continue to feel strong, or at least for the next four days. As for turning more nine-pitch, three-strikeout innings, Francona believes nothing more needs to be said to his Opening Day pitcher.
"He knows," the skipper said.
Alec Shirkey is an associate reporter for MLB.com.