CLEVELAND — The Indians needed a positive outing from right-hander Justin Masterson on a number of fronts Monday night in the series opener against the Boston Red Sox.
Masterson, who has been an inconsistent ace this year, had arguably his best start of the season, easing plenty of fears and helping Cleveland to a 3-2 win at Progressive Field.
It looked as though Masterson was headed back down the trail to a brief and ineffective outing, but he found his groove, tossing seven scoreless innings while allowing just three hits and striking out a season-high 10 batters.
He walked four batters within the first three innings, but appeared to lock in after inducing A.J. Pierzynski into an inning-ending double play in the third.
“It took him I think 66 pitches to get the first seven outs, and then he got Pierzysnki to hit into that double play and I think he threw 24-25 strikes in a row,” said manager Terry Francona, whose team has won a season-high four straight. “We talked earlier how the first three innings he cruises and then he kind of runs into a tough spot, and he kind of flipped it tonight — and, boy, did he ever.
“He’s facing a bunch of left-handers and he stayed down, changing speeds and just attacking the strike zone. You look up in the third inning and you’re thinking, ‘OK, we got the lead, but we’re going to be in our bullpen early.’ He got us pretty deep.”
Beginning with his pitch to Pierzynski, Masterson (3-4, 4.72 ERA), threw 25 straight strikes, the streak ending on David Ortiz’s one-out single in the sixth. Masterson retired eight straight over the span and struck out five, including the side in the fourth on nine pitches.
“I feel like I’ve probably thrown 25 balls in a row in one game, so it’s nice to have 25 strikes in a row,” Masterson joked. “It just felt like we were pounding the zone and then able to kind of put some guys away. That was really what I felt, really under control tonight. It was great.”
Even as he struggled with control early, Masterson believed better things were coming.
“The best thing about it was we still felt decently under control,” he said. “We were just kind of missing. We were like, ‘Keep going with the game plan and things are going to work out,’ and sure enough I was able to get that 3-0 strikeout. Confidence is at an all-time high when you’re able to get through something like that.”
Masterson was referring to his strikeout of Jonny Gomes in the first inning. With the bases loaded, two outs and the count 3-0, Masterson threw three straight strikes, getting Gomes looking at a perfectly placed fastball.
For one of the rare times this season, Cleveland’s defense backed the pitching staff. The major league leader in errors didn’t commit one, and turned a couple of inning-ending double plays.
“(Masterson) threw a bunch of ground balls and we played a real clean game on a night that we had to,” Francona said.
“They were great,” Masterson said of his fielders.
An early uprising against Boston starter John Lackey was pivotal.
Lackey, who matched Masterson’s early control issues, walked two in the first inning as well, and the Indians were able to cash in.
With Michael Bourn and Michael Brantley on base after drawing free passes, red-hot Lonnie Chisenhall delivered a two-out base hit to left field to score both. Chisenhall, who is batting .355 in 28 games, is hitting .385 (5-for-13) with a home run and seven RBIs over the first four games of the homestand.
Cleveland scored what proved to be the winning run in the third when Bourn tripled to lead off, then rode home on a hit from Asdrubal Cabrera.
The Indians kept Boston scoreless over the first seven innings, but the Red Sox closed the gap to a run on a two-run homer from Xander Bogaerts off Bryan Shaw with one out in the eighth.
Shaw, one of Cleveland’s most reliable relievers this season, was pitching for the third straight game. Shaw and left-hander Marc Rzepczysnki are tied for the major league lead with 30 appearances, while Cody Allen is fifth with 29.
“I told Shaw if he goes to arbitration, ‘Take me with you and I’ll tell them that I shouldn’t have pitched you so much tonight,’” Francona said.
Allen pitched the ninth, retiring the side in order to earn his fourth save.