New closer Mastny flies through ranks

Mastny flies through ranks

CLEVELAND -- Don't feel alone.

Tom Mastny is just as surprised as you that he's the Indians' closer.

Against all reasonable logic, a year that began in obscurity in Double-A has somehow evolved into this -- four saves in four opportunities, and the answer to the Tribe's late-inning woes.

"This," said Mastny, summing it up in his head, "has been a crazy year."

When the right-hander was acquired in the 2004 trade that sent utility infielder John McDonald to the Blue Jays, it wasn't exactly a transaction that made waves. Mastny, selected in the 11th round of the '03 draft after his senior year at Furman, had certainly put up good numbers as a starter in his first two professional seasons in the Jays organization, but his less-than-electric stuff hardly made an ascent to the Majors seem a given.

Mastny knew that as well as anybody.

After he signed with the Jays, he made a promise to himself that if he didn't reach at least the Triple-A level within five years, he'd hang 'em up and see where his degree in business administration could get him.

"A lot of guys come into [pro baseball] and don't have a degree," Mastny said. "Baseball is their life. But I was engaged and am married now. You have to be realistic about it. Especially when you're a senior sign and not a high draft pick. You have to realize it's a tough road. If you're sitting on a college degree, you're sitting on potentially decent money down the road."

Mastny handled the long and winding road of the Minor Leagues pretty well, even when it seemed he wasn't in the Indians' long-term plans.

Last season, he was passed over for the rotation at Class A Kinston and dumped in the bullpen. Midway through the year, he returned to starting, both at Kinston and Double-A Akron. Whatever his role, he prospered, putting up a 2.35 ERA in 29 appearances at Kinston and a 2.18 ERA in five games with the Aeros.

"My numbers at the end of the year have always been decent," Mastny said. "But it's one of those things where you look at it and say, 'This guy has to prove himself at every level.' I'm OK with that. You kind of use not being a prospect as motivation."

No, Mastny was not a prospect in the strictest sense. But that didn't mean the organization wasn't paying attention to his progress.

"You can't deny his track record and performance and success since signing with Toronto," farm director John Farrell said. "What was really revealed is that he has a tremendous self-awareness compared to other players. He's got a very good understanding of what his body is telling him."

Mastny's body was asking for relief. Well, relief work, that is.

The Indians had Mastny open the '06 season in the Akron bullpen. In mid-May, however, they discussed returning him to the rotation. When the subject came up, Mastny made his preference clear.

"In a direct conversation with him, it became apparent that, physically, he felt like he bounces back very well [from relief appearances]," Farrell said. "He felt that prolonged outings took more of a toll on him than shorter, more frequent outings. At that point, after listening to his feedback, we decided to stay on course."

"I was sitting there and getting used to the atmosphere. When you get up here, you're used to 8,000 people at the game. To see 30,000 is a huge jump. To take that in without pitching kind of helped."
-- Tom Mastny, on awaiting his debut in the 'pen

And the outs kept coming.

Mastny had put up a 1.09 ERA in 12 outings at Akron before being promoted to Buffalo on May 16. While with the Bisons, he went 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 24 appearances, striking out 46 batters in 28 innings.

It's not as if Mastny suddenly learned how to heave a fastball in the upper 90s. He was, and is, still topping out around 91 or 92, but he did learn how to get better action on his breaking pitches.

"My curveball has gotten a little bit better, and I developed a harder sinker, which has helped me a little bit," Mastny said. "It's more about location than anything."

Location and deception. Because he's 6-foot-6 and uses a high leg kick, Mastny leaves opposing batters with little more than a blind guess at what's coming.

"He creates deception with the leg kick and the arm slot he throws from," Farrell said. "Hitters don't pick up the ball on him until it's already traveled toward the plate. So while [the fastball] is 88-92, in reality it has more effectiveness because of the deception of his delivery."

Upon being called up to the big leagues on July 24, the 25-year-old Mastny didn't get much chance to use that deception. Promoted as a middle reliever, he sat and waited for his first opportunity for six days. And his second outing didn't come for another nine days.

It wasn't the ideal way to break into the bigs, but Mastny made the most of it.

"I was sitting there and getting used to the atmosphere," he said. "When you get up here, you're used to 8,000 people at the game. To see 30,000 is a huge jump. To take that in without pitching kind of helped."

Finally, on Aug. 19, when the Indians were desperate for somebody -- anybody -- to get some ninth-inning outs, Mastny was ready to help. He worked two scoreless innings against the Devil Rays that Saturday night at Tropicana Field for his first Major League save in just his fourth Major League appearance.

Improbably, he's been the Tribe's closer ever since. Over his last six innings of work, Mastny has allowed no runs and three hits while striking out seven.

"He's leveraging the ball, and he's confident," manager Eric Wedge said. "I like his composure."

The Indians are tempering their enthusiasm over Mastny's success to this point. After all, he's made just seven appearances in the Majors.

But with offseason questions about the bullpen looming, Mastny is making a strong case to at least have a big-league job at the outset of '07. Whether he can remain in the closer's role will depend not only on his performance in the season's final month, but also on the Tribe's evaluation of what veteran relievers are available on the free-agent and trade markets.

Still, in a season that hasn't gone to plan, Mastny is one unexpected surprise that has turned out to be quite a pleasant one for the Indians -- not to mention himself.

"I wasn't planning on being a closer," he said. "They just needed somebody to fill in. I don't know if I'm going to remain it the rest of the year, but I'm going to do whatever they want me to to help them win."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.