Covering the Bases: Game 63
Indians 2, Pirates 0
FIRST: Now that is the Justin Masterson the Indians have been waiting to see.
Against the Pirates on Friday night, Big Masty brought his nasty and blanked Pittsburgh for seven stellar innings. Masterson struck out nine, scattered four hits, walked three and hit a batter in the 109-pitch (70 strikes) performance. It was easily his best outing since Opening Day (8 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K vs. Toronto).
What is encouraging is not just Friday’s showing, though. What has the Indians excited right now is the fact that Masterson has pieced together his best three-start stretch of the season. Over his last three outings, the righty has posted a 1.80 ERA with 18 strikeouts and six walks over 20 innings.
What was working against the Pirates? Well, everything. Masterson was getting ahead in the count with his sinker and four-seamer (which topped out at 96.1 mph) and that enabled him to expand the strike zone to pile up some strikeouts with that slider. Manager Manny Acta felt Masterson’s slider was the best it has been all year.
Masterson actually threw 29 sliders, accounting for 27% of his pitches. Entering the night, he had averaged 22.4% sliders on the season. That’s up from 14.9% a year ago and the highest his slider percentage has been since 2009. There could be a few reasons for that.
For starters, Masterson has his highest called strike rate (18.5%) and his lowest called ball rate (35.9%) with his slider compared to his two-seamer, four-seamer and changeup (he does throw one every once in a while). Beyond that, Masterson has fought with his four-seamer for much of the season. When one pitch isn’t working, percentages will increase with other offerings.
SECOND: Acta said the “play of the game” came in the sixth inning. With one out and Neil Walker on third base, Garrett Jones lofted a pitch into shallow right field. Second baseman Jason Kipnis chased it down and made a highlight-reel over-the-shoulder catch. But, that was only the start of what made the play so impressive.
“What was impressive was how quick he stopped and threw a strike to the plate,” Acta said.
Walker held up at third rather than trying to tag and score. Masterson took advantage induced an inning-ending groundout off the bat of Casey McGehee.
Kipnis said the key to the play was actually a bit of instruction on the part of third-base coach and infield guru Steve Smith, who handles positioning. Right before Jones struck that particular pitch, Smith told Kipnis to take a handle of steps back, even though the infield was playing in.
“I was moved back about five-to-seven feet,” Kipnis explained. “We were all in on the grass and then I was told to move back kind of halfway. [Smith] nailed that one. He was right on that one.”
THIRD: When Michael Brantley flew out to end the sixth inning, it looked like he might not get another chance to extend hit hitting streak. That all changed when Carlos Santana drew a two-out walk in the eighth inning. The walk brought Brantley to the plate for one more try after going 0-for-3 to that point.
Brantley responded by sending a pitch up the middle for a run-scoring single that not only gave closer Chris Perez some added breathing room in the ninth, but extended the center fielder’s hitting streak to 22 games. That’s a career best and the longest streak in baseball this year.
Longest hitting streaks for an Indians hitter (since 1918)
1. Sandy Alomar Jr., 30 games, 1997
2. Hal Trosky, 28 games, 1936
3. Bruce Campbell, 27 games, 1938
4. Casey Blake, 26 games, 2007
5. Matt Williams, 24 games, 1997
Seven players have gone 23 games (eight times) and eight players (including Brantley) have gone 22 games (eight times).
HOME: As long as we’re on the topic of streaks, with his save against the Pirates on Friday night, Perez has now run his consecutive saves streak to 21 in his past 21 chances. That puts him into a tie for the fourth-longest save streak in franchise history.
Longest save streaks for an Indians pitcher
1. Jose Mesa, 38, 1995
2. Jose Mesa, 28, 1995-96
t-3. Bob Wickman, 24, 2005-06
t-3. Michael Jackson, 24, 1998-99
t-4. Chris Perez, 21, 2012
t-4. Bob Wickman, 21, 2001-02
t-4. Doug Jones, 21, 1998
Pirates (32-31) at Indians (33-30)
at 4:05 p.m. ET Saturday at Progressive Field