CLEVELAND -- Indians ace Justin Masterson will pitch again before the regular season is complete, but it won’t be as a starter.
Manager Terry Francona said Tuesday that Masterson, who has been sidelined since Sept. 2 with a strained left oblique, will pitch out of the bullpen tonight or in the series opener at Minnesota on Thursday.
A return to the rotation is not an option for Masterson over Cleveland’s final five games, but Francona said the right-hander could start again should the Indians qualify for the postseason and make it past the Division Series.
Regardless of the role, the Indians are happy to have Masterson in the fold at all. Normal recovery time for oblique strains is 4-6 weeks.
“What ended up possibly being 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,” Francona said. “He makes the point that he wasn’t down that long, and it shows. He’s worked really hard.”
“I started feeling good about a week and a half (after the injury),” said Masterson (14-10, 3.52 ERA), who pitched a simulated game at Progressive Field after Sunday’s game. “It was a real nice process. Hopefully we can help the team out in (the relief) role.”
Masterson has experience pitching out of the bullpen, beginning his big league career as a reliever with Boston, before converting into a starter shortly upon joining the Indians.
Francona wasn’t sure when he would use Masterson but said he would not have the pitcher enter during an inning.
“He’s (relieved) before. He actually was really good at it,” Francona said.
Masterson has missed being part of the playoff push, but he’s remained optimistic.
“It’s great ’cause we’re winning ballgames,” said Masterson, whose team entered the night with a one-game lead for the second wild-card spot. “Everyone else is picking it up. They don’t need me. I’m just here to encourage and smile and give them hugs, and it seems like that’s working right now.”
With a playoff bid on the line, Francona was asked if he would manage differently over the remainder of the regular season.
“I think you go to the bullpen a little earlier because we have numbers and you try to take advantage of that,” he said.
Ubaldo Jimenez got off to a disappointing start to the season, with many feeling the right-hander was on the verge of losing his spot in the rotation. But Francona stuck by him.
“I actually remember what I said, “I said we don’t want to run away from our guys. We want to help them,”’ Francona said. “That’s how we feel. Every time someone struggles, you can’t just release them or go get somebody else. That’s not the mentality we want to have.”
The approach more than paid off, with Jimenez becoming one of the majors’ top starters since the All-Star break. He entered his 31st start Tuesday with a 12-9 record and 3.39 ERA, going 5-5 with a 1.77 ERA in 10 second-half outings.
“He’s gotten himself to a point where we’re trying to line up days so he can pitch,” Francona said. “That’s pretty impressive on his part.”
Jimenez is scheduled to start the regular season finale Sunday at Minnesota, but with Masterson no longer an option, the Indians might choose to save Jimenez should they clinch a spot in the wild-card game next Wednesday.
At 86-70 through Monday, the Indians had increased their win total by 18 from last season.
It currently accounts as the fourth-largest year-to-year win jump behind 24 (1985-86), 20 (1915-16) and 19 (1991-92, 1953-54, 1928-29).
The Indians entered Tuesday night with a 15-6 record during the month of September. ... Cleveland entered Tuesday 63-24 when scoring first. ... The Indians’ bullpen had posted a 1.35 ERA over the last 11 games through Monday. ... Tonight, 7:05, WTAM 1100-AM/WMMS 100.7-FM. Salazar (1-3, 3.09 ERA) vs. Axelrod (4-10, 5.72).
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