CLEVELAND: Justin Masterson’s father is a pastor, so he seemed the perfect member of the Indians to sit before a microphone and assure those whose faith is wavering.
Faith in the Indians, that is.
Worried about the Tribe’s 7-22 spring training record and a .247 team batting average that ranked second-to-last in the American League?
Upset that the front office failed to acquire a right-handed hitter or find a top-of-the-line left fielder?
Fraught with doubt about No. 2 starter Ubaldo Jimenez?
If you’d heard Masterson’s enthusiastic 11-minute interview Wednesday, all those fears would have been calmed. In fact, you would have been ready to dash around the bases at Progressive Field, no matter your fitness level.
At least, that’s the way I felt.
It was the eve of the 27-year-old right-hander’s first career Opening Day assignment, so some of Masterson’s excitement surely came from that opportunity. He earned the honor to be first up this afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays with a breakout season in 2011, when his 3.21 ERA was the eighth lowest by an Indians starter since 1985. A dismal lack of run support stunted his record (12-10).
“There’s going to be excitement, there’s going to be joy, there’s going to be some nerves, there’s going to be some intensity,” Masterson said. “Part of you is going to have to appreciate the moment because you never know when you’re going to have it again. Part of you has to appreciate and enjoy the emotions and the feelings, but to realize also that you’ve got to go out and do your job.
“What will keep things in check is realizing this is fun, this is going to be a good time and we can go out and try and shine.”
But Masterson couldn’t conceal his faith in his teammates. The Indians are coming off an 80-82 season and a second-place finish in the American League Central behind 2012 favorite the Detroit Tigers. The Tribe started 30-15 and held first place for 95 days, last on July 20, before a rash of injuries derailed the dream. Masterson insisted there will be a carryover from last season.
“What’s great about last year is everyone got an understanding of what it’s like to win, what it’s like to be in first place and how great that feels,” he said. “Then at the end, what it’s like to be in second place and how great that doesn’t feel.
“You’re going to have injuries and you’re going to have to fight through that. It got guys to know when you come up you’re expected to do well. We’ll continue to root each other on. I think we’ll take a lot from what we did last year.”
But more importantly, the pitcher who joined the Tribe in a July 31, 2009 trade with the Boston Red Sox believes the team’s rebuilding years are over.
“There’s no more rebuilding,” Masterson said. “Rebuilding was bringing guys in from the trades we had done. Last year some of the mind-set from media types was that we were still working to get it together. Last year we did what we wanted to do. That’s what a lot of people expected to do within the team.
“This year continues that process. We have the people here who can do the job. Whether or not that takes place, we’re not robots, so you never know exactly what you’re going to get. The excitement of what we have for the beginning of the season is how great this team is and how great we can be and should be.”
That might sound like Masterson is buying into manager Manny Acta’s message. Fans continue to stress over the erratic spring of Jimenez and whether the 2011 trade that brought him was an utter fleecing by the Colorado Rockies. Then there’s the back surgery that will sideline Grady Sizemore until at least June 3 and the gaping hole in left field that Shelley Duncan will try to fill. Pessimists figure the Tigers widened the gap with the signing of slugger Prince Fielder to go with American League batting champ Miguel Cabrera and Cy Young-Most Valuable Player winner Justin Verlander.
But Indians No. 3 starter Derek Lowe, who arrived in an Oct. 31 trade with the Atlanta Braves, echoed Masterson’s optimism and his ‘rebuilding is over’ theme. Lowe said that has been emphasized from the first day.
“[It was] ‘We’re here to win. Last year was not by any means a fluke. We went out and added some people,’ ” Lowe said. “From the outside, people probably don’t give us much of a chance from what Detroit did. That’s fine. We’ll play our game and we’ll be there at the end.”
The way Masterson handled his first chance in the interview room only added to the feeling that a young Indians team might be able to channel its excitement into something special.
A microphone was passed around for questions and when the first one came, Masterson was unsure of the protocol. “Do you need to say your name first?” he asked. “I was just checking. I haven’t been in these bright lights.”
When it was over, he ended with a “thank you,” seemingly trying to sound serious or formal.
“Is that it? I don’t know. Just messing around,” he said. “You guys shouldn’t give me a mike.”
Yes, the Indians should. Because when Masterson said, “This is the go time,” and spoke about his team with faith and passion, it was hard not to believe right along with him.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.