CHICAGO: What do Indians outfielders look forward to when Justin Masterson pitches? Certainly not catching fly balls or chasing extra-base hits around the warning track.
On a good day, Tribe outfielders can relax and play video games or read the latest issue of DuPont REGISTRY.
That’s how it was Sunday, as Masterson threw a complete-game shutout, and the Indians finished off sweeping a four-game series from the White Sox 4-0 at U.S. Cellular Field.
How rare is a four-game sweep in Chicago for the Tribe? The last time it happened, television was a seldom-seen invention in American homes, Aug. 13-15, 1948.
More than anyone, Masterson made it happen Sunday, forcing Sox batsmen to swat 10 balls into the dirt for 14 outs. Besides striking out eight, including four in the last two innings, Masterson’s slider produced four double-play balls.
As for his ground-ball strategy, Masterson said: “With me, they either hit the ball to someone or they don’t. Today, they hit the ball to someone.
“I just tried to stay within myself. I wanted them to hit it. There were a lot of double plays, and they were pretty double plays.”
Between strikeouts and ground outs, there was precious little for the outfielders to do. One out came on a line drive to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, another was the product of a pickoff play.
“I’ve been trying to get one all year,” said catcher Yan Gomes, who nailed Alejandro De Aza at first base for the first out of the fourth inning.
It was an important play at the time, because the Tribe held only a 2-0 lead, and the meat of the Sox batting order was coming to the plate.
“I knew he was going to try and steal that at-bat,” Gomes said. “I was trying to get him before he did.”
Masterson (10-6, 3.48 ERA) always credits his offense and his defense before he acknowledges that he did anything to contribute to a win.
“The defense was great for me today,” he said. “The whole weekend was about the position players.”
Masterson leads the American League with three complete games. He has seven in his career, including four against the White Sox. The win also marked his fourth career shutout.
In 11 of his 18 starts, Masterson has given up three or fewer runs, and he has worked at least six innings in every start but one.
Manager Terry Francona had no thoughts about removing him after the eighth inning. But during the ninth, Francona sent pitching coach Mickey Callaway to the mound on a fact-finding mission.
“I just wanted to know if Masty had enough in the tank to finish,” he said.
It was tough going for the Tribe offense against Chicago ace Chris Sale; make that the unlucky Chicago ace Chris Sale, who came into the game with a 2.75 ERA but only a 5-6 record and four consecutive losing decisions.
Sale retired the first nine batters of the game, five on strikeouts, then Drew Stubbs opened a crack in the dam by bunting for a single. Two outs later, Ryan Raburn doubled Stubbs home, and Carlos Santana singled to score Raburn.
“He was rolling along with nine up and nine down,” Stubbs said of Sale. “Bunting is a weapon for me. I use it from time to time. I saw the third baseman back up, so I tried to disrupt Sale’s game a little.”
Did Stubbs’ bunt have an upsetting effect on Sale? There is no way to know for sure, but maybe.
“It’s hard to say if it directly affected him,” Stubbs said. “But I think something did.”
The Tribe beat Sale 9-4 in April at Progressive Field.
With 14 wins in their past 19 games, the Indians have been closing in on the first-place Tigers, who lost to the Rays on Sunday.
That enabled the Tribe to move into a virtual tie for the lead, though Detroit still is ahead by tiny percentage points: .538 to .537. But with half a season yet to play, it’s a little too early to claim any sort of bragging rights.
Asked what it meant to be so close to the top of the Central Division at the end of June, Francona said: “Not a lot. There is still is a little bit of baseball to play. So it’s a kind of premature.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.