TORONTO: Justin Masterson was unimpressive — no, he was on his game — as the Indians beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-1 Tuesday night in the season opener at Rogers Centre.
Then there was the Tribe’s offense, which was tested by last year’s National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey, formerly of the New York Mets.
Asdrubal Cabrera tested Dickey right back, jolting a sellout crowd of 48,857 into instant depression by blasting a two-run homer over the wall in right to turn a one-run squeaker into a substantial three-run lead in the fifth inning.
“Not really,” Cabrera said when asked if he thought his towering fly would clear the wall. “I hit it good, but I thought it was too high.”
Truth be told, Masterson was both in allowing only three hits and striking out five in six innings. But there was much more to his story: like giving up only one run but walking four and hitting a batter.
The thinking by the Indians’ deep thinkers probably goes something like this: “If Masterson pitched so erratically and gave up one run in six innings, think how dominating he will be when he gains command of his pitches.”
Of course, there is no guarantee Masterson will overcome his wildness. At least for now, the wiser thought process might be to concede that Masterson will not instantly become a prodigy of the plate, and that at least his early-season outings are likely to resemble his initial performance. But there are worse things that could happen.
“He probably was pitching better when I took him out than he was earlier,” Indians manager Terry Francona said “But that was enough for his first outing.”
Masterson threw 103 pitches, which projects to 155 for nine innings. But only the first three innings resembled an episode of Survivor.
“I was looking down there, thinking, ‘You might have to go get somebody a little earlier,’ ” Masterson said of the chances that he might have to yield to the bullpen.
“When the game started, it didn’t look like he [Masterson] would get that far,” Francona said.
In the first, second and third, the Jays had multiple chances to shorten Masterson’s evening considerably and take a commanding lead.
Jose Reyes led off the first with a walk but was doubled up when Melky Cabrera lined to shortstop, and Cabrera turned it into a double play. But Jose Bautista singled and Masterson hit Edwin Encarnacion before retiring the side by striking out Adam Lind.
A walk and a double by Emilio Bonifacio put runners on second and third in the second inning, but there already were two outs, and Masterson induced Reyes to bounce back to the mound.
In the third, Cabrera’s single, an error by right fielder Drew Stubbs and two walks loaded the bases with nobody out. But Lind bounced into a double play, with one run scoring. Again, Masterson ended the inning with a strikeout, this time of J.P Arencibia.
At the rate he was going, throwing 70 pitches in three innings, Masterson would have used 140 for six innings, not 103. But he began throwing more strikes, and the Blue Jays began making outs with alacrity. Masterson retired nine batters in a row from the fourth through the sixth inning, striking out two.
“Strikes,” said Masterson, when asked what was different about his first three innings and the last three. “They weren’t going there [in the strike zone] and then they started to.”
What happened between the third and fourth innings?
“I think Mickey [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] talked to him about throwing more four-seamers,” Francona said. “That got him in the zone more, then he got his breaking pitch to boot.”
He also received valuable support from his defense. On consecutive plays to start the sixth, second baseman Jason Kipnis then first baseman Nick Swisher made diving plays to keep ground balls from reaching the outfield, turning both into outs.
It was interesting to see how the Indians would react to a knuckleball pitcher, a knuckleball pitcher of renown. But Dickey struggled, both with his control and because of his catcher, Arencibia, who let three pitches get away for passed balls.
Two of them came in the second inning, allowing Michael Brantley, who led off with a single, to trot to second then to third, from where he scored on Lonnie Chisenhall’s ground out. The Tribe made it a two-run rally, when Stubbs singled home Mark Reynolds, who walked and took second in Dickey’s second passed ball.
“We didn’t knock Dickey out of the game, but we did enough,” Francona said.
Added Cabrera, “He was not easy. That knuckleball really moves. I got lucky.”
As expected, the Tribe bullpen triumvirate of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez put the clamps on the Blue Jays the last three innings, with Perez giving up the only hit, a two-out double in the ninth, just before he wrapped up the save.
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.