By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: When Indians All-Star Justin Masterson left his last start earlier this month with an oblique injury, many fans took it as a sign it just wasn’t going to be the Indians’ year — again.
But instead of Masterson’s strained oblique haunting the Tribe, the team has managed to stay in the thick of the wild-card race thanks in part to an easy schedule down the stretch. Now, Masterson’s absence — and pending return in a bullpen role — might actually aid the Indians over the final six games of the season.
“He’ll be able to pitch in a game maybe as early as [today],” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I actually got to stand behind him [when Masterson pitched Sunday] and his stuff was really good.
“What ended up being possibly a big negative for us — having Masty not around — all of a sudden, has a chance to be a big weapon for us moving forward.”
Masterson (14-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 29 starts) pitched a simulated inning from the Progressive Field mound following Sunday’s win over the Houston Astros.
“Yesterday I came back and did some work here on the off day and felt good, felt fine, everything was normal and just the way I was hoping it’d feel,” said Masterson, who has been sidelined since Sept. 2 when he was pulled early during his outing against the Baltimore Orioles.
While Masterson said “part of the goal” is to start again this season if the Indians are playing meaningful games in October, Francona said that could only happen if the Indians go deep into the playoffs.
“We’d have to play for a while,” Francona said.
Whether it be starting or relieving, Masterson is just happy to be in a position to help in any capacity.
“It’s been great because we’re winning ballgames,” he said.
“Everyone else is just picking it up. They don’t need me, I’m just here to encourage, smile and give them hugs.”
Masterson spent time as a reliever while with Boston, the organization that originally drafted him in the second round of the 2006 draft. But the 6-foot-6 right-hander has pitched primarily as a starter since coming to Cleveland in the 2009 deadline trade that sent catcher Victor Martinez to the Red Sox.
“It’s been quite some time [since I’ve been in the bullpen],” he said. “Especially with any significance. And now, we have like a 100 guys down there [due to September call-ups]. I might have to sit in the back row.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.