Masterful start, late spark lift Tribe in opener
Masterson leads way with seven strong frames in shutout of A's
OAKLAND -- Justin Masterson knows that all he is guaranteed is this season with the Indians. With that in mind, and without worrying about what his future might hold, the starter has embraced the responsibility of leading Cleveland's staff and setting the tone for the year at hand.
If Opening Day is any indication, Masterson is ready to hoist Cleveland on his broad shoulders.
Masterson led the way in Monday night's opener against the A's, overpowering Oakland for seven innings to initiate the Indians' quest to build on last summer's run to the postseason. The Tribe offense was a little slower out of the gates, waiting until the ninth inning to rally in a season-opening 2-0 victory over the A's at the Coliseum.
"It was a nice tone," Masterson said with a smile. "I think that's as good a tone as you can set."
In his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Indians, Masterson blanked Oakland's lineup and probably could have gone the distance had this been a midseason start. The right-hander certainly looked to be in midseason form, inducing a pile of ground balls and escaping the handful of jams he encountered along the way.
"I think we've kind of come to expect that," Indians manager Terry Francona said.
A victory was not in the cards for Masterson, but the Indians still found the win column, sending the A's to a Major League-record 10th straight loss on Opening Day. Cleveland accomplished that by sidestepping a dicey eighth inning, rallying in the ninth and then having new closer John Axford lock things down for his first save in a Tribe uniform.
"Everything seems a little bigger, because it's the first game," Francona said. "It's hard to get past that, but it is only one game. But, heck yeah, we showed up this morning to win and we did. Now, we get to show up tomorrow and see if we can do it again."
Facing Oakland closer Jim Johnson in the ninth inning, center fielder Nyjer Morgan delivered a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded to put the Tribe on the board. Nick Swisher followed with an RBI single, giving Axford a two-run cushion that proved sufficient. Axford walked two batters, but he also had a pair of strikeouts in closing things out.
"It still worked out, right?" Axford said with a grin. "No runs and we ended up with the win. So, it was perfect."
It was a satisfying ending to what had been a mostly frustrating game for Cleveland, which struggled to solve right-handed starter Sonny Gray. Over six innings, Gray struck out seven and sidestepped any damage that might have come from the five hits and three walks he allowed.
Cleveland went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position before breaking through in the ninth.
"Sonny Gray did a great job for them tonight getting out of some jams," Swisher said. "I felt like we had guys in scoring position a lot tonight. We really just didn't do a good job of getting runs in. But, hey, better late than never, right?"
Cleveland looked like it was on its way to its first run in the sixth inning, but a close call at the plate halted the potential rally. With one out and runners on first and third base, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera sent a pitch up the middle that bounced off Gray. Michael Brantley hustled home from third, while Gray quickly retrieved the ball.
Gray fired to catcher John Jaso, who held on to the ball as Brantley slid into his legs. Sitting in the dirt, Brantley raised his arms in confusion after home-plate umpire Mike Winters called him out. Francona talked things over with Winters, who made the decision to contact the Replay Operations Center in New York, where multiple angles were reviewed and the original call was confirmed.
The question was whether Jaso was blocking the plate before having possession of the baseball -- a move that is not allowed under baseball's new home-plate collision rules. After looking at the footage, it was confirmed that Jaso gave Brantley a path toward the plate prior to receiving the ball.
"I just wanted to confirm what I saw on the field that the catcher did not block the plate unnecessarily," Winters told a pool reporter. "He was in fair territory. He gave the runner plenty of plate to go to, and so I just wanted to be sure."
Following that play, Oakland had a chance to sway things in its favor in the home half of the sixth, when Masterson had runners on second and third base with one out. The sinkerballer did not flinch, inducing a weak groundout back to the mound from Jed Lowrie and an inning-ending flyout off the bat of Brandon Moss.
Masterson -- a free agent at season's end -- bowed out of the scoreless ballgame after seven innings, during which he limited the A's to three hits and ended with four strikeouts, one walk and nine outs via grounders. In his three Opening Day starts, the righty has spun a 0.86 ERA with 24 groundouts, 19 strikeouts and only eight hits surrendered in 21 combined innings.
In the eighth inning, Josh Donaldson nearly launched a three-run home run off setup man Cody Allen, but the baseball came down on top of the wall in center field for a 400-foot single. Daric Barton held up at third base on the play, loading the bases.
"I thought it was off the suites," Donaldson said. "I'm not frustrated with Barton. I was more frustrated it didn't get out. It's one of those things, you hit the ball probably as good as I can, you want to see the results of that. We make mistakes in this game."
Allen recovered by striking out Lowrie and getting Moss to ground out to escape harm.
Axford said it felt good to finish what Masterson started.
"He was fantastic," Axford said. "It's great to see that at the start of the season. It was such a great, dominant pitching performance. And then we had guys come out of the 'pen, pick each other up and come together for a shutout."