Easygoing Masterson steps to foreground

Easygoing Masterson steps to foreground

Easygoing Masterson steps to foreground
There is something fitting about the fact that Indians sinkerballer Justin Masterson was born in Jamaica. He has no real ties these days to the island nation -- other than his birth certificate -- but he is about as relaxed as an ocean breeze floating across a sun-splashed beach.

With Masterson, the glass is always half full and there is always a reason to smile. His attitude is infectious, creating a calm aura that can do wonders for whichever corner of the clubhouse he happens to be occupying. Combine his persona with his performance, and Masterson seemed the logical choice as Cleveland's Opening Day starter.

"Justin's got a great way about him," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "I don't think he gets fazed. He's very even-keeled, which is an important attribute."

Don't worry, be happy.

Come Thursday, Masterson will be on the hill at Progressive Field for the season opener, his broad frame towering above the pitching rubber and a line of Blue Jays readying to step into the batter's box. Toronto hardly needs a scouting report. Its hitters will see that unorthodox arm angle unleashing his signature sinker.

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It is also fitting that Masterson is an avid bowler, because making contact with his two-seamer can often feel like striking a bowling ball with a pool cue. On the mound, Masterson can sometimes use his easygoing personality to his advantage, too. His windup is as calm and cool as he is, but his fastball takes on a life of its own.

A smirk creeps across Masterson's face.

"It's easy, easy, easy and then, 'Whop!'" he said. "That's kind of the idea of what you want. Literally, the 'Whop!' is what you want to hear. It's like the whip cracks."

And, sometimes, the bat along with it.

This season, the 27-year-old Masterson is looking to build on the breakout showing he had in 2011 with the Tribe. Overall, the right-hander went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA in 34 appearances, though it is fair to point out that his run support was abysmal at times. During one 11-start stretch, Masterson received just 22 runs of help from his lineup.

Don't worry, be happy.

"That's OK," Masterson said with a shrug. "We still win ballgames when we don't score many runs."

The joke is that Masterson's laid-back take on things stems being born in Kingston, Jamaica. The truth of the matter is he was only there for a few years, while his dad -- a pastor -- worked in ministry on the island. Masterson's family moved to Indiana when he was very young, and then to Beavercreek, Ohio, where he spent most of his youth.

There are no tall tales of Masterson being discovered on a Jamaican beach. His life in baseball simply began when his parents insisted that he get out of the house and do something active. Masterson played basketball and baseball but fell in love with the latter.

"I just continued to do it and my love for the game continued to increase," Masterson said. "It was like, man, this is fun. Probably because I was decent and somewhat athletic."

Somewhat athletic.

Masterson might have picked those specific words because he's humble, or maybe it has something to do with an old photograph that makes him chuckle to this day. There he is back in his days as a high school ballplayer, wearing catcher's gear and looking a bit awkward.

Masterson laughs.

"There's this picture, it's kind of funny," Masterson said. "It's me real chunky in the background. Somebody was tagging somebody out at second base, and looming in the background is Justin."

Masterson's place these days is at the forefront.

Much of that is due to his sinker. Even during his days as a high school catcher -- he gave that up his senior year at Beavercreek High -- Masterson's throws had a little too much movement. Coaches would yell at him not to throw sidearm, and he would have to adjust his aim to get the ball where he wanted it to go.

"It had some run," Masterson said. "We were quick, but we were starting at the shortstop to try to get it to second base."

Told that Masterson was once a catcher, Antonetti shook his head and smiled.

"I did not know that, actually," he said. "I would've thought, 'He'd make a good pitcher.'"

The question early in Masterson's career was whether he was best utilized as a starter or reliever. A second-round Draft pick by Boston in 2006, Masterson climbed to the Major Leagues with the Red Sox in '08. They told him he could pitch in the big leagues if he was willing to work out of the bullpen.

Masterson did not think turning down a Major League opportunity was the way to go.

Cleveland Indians
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Michael Brantley
2 SS Asdrubal Cabrera
3 RF Shin-Soo Choo
4 C Carlos Santana
5 DH Travis Hafner
6 LF Shelley Duncan
7 1B Casey Kotchman
8 2B Jason Kipnis
9 3B Jack Hannahan
Projected rotation
1 RHP Justin Masterson
2 RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
3 RHP Derek Lowe
4 RHP Josh Tomlin
5 RHP Jeanmar Gomez
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

"They said, 'We want you in the big leagues, but we don't have any starting spots,'" Masterson said. "That's how it started out. ... 'Will that keep me there the whole year? Yeah? OK.' It comes down to enjoying to play, and if there's an opportunity to do that, I'll take it."

Deep down, Masterson still believed he could be a starter, though there were plenty of evaluators that looked at his style -- primarily sinker and slider -- and felt his future in the game was in relief. At the July 31 Trade Deadline in 2009, Cleveland acquired Masterson from the Red Sox as part of the deal that sent Victor Martinez to Boston.

Masterson was thrown into the Tribe's rotation and he went 1-7 with a 4.55 ERA in 11 outings down the stretch. A year later, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound pitcher went 6-13 with a 4.70 ERA, going through some growing pains in his development as a full-time starting pitcher.

Don't worry, be happy.

"Regardless of the result, he keeps his emotions in check," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "He had the same attitude two years ago when he was going through his struggles in his first year starting. Last year, I think he acted the same. It works for him."

It worked to the tune of 216 innings logged and 158 strikeouts collected. Along the way, he wore out more than a few infields by creating 364 groundouts, which ranked third in the American League. Masterson tied for team high in wins, led the Tribe in ERA, strikeouts, starts and innings, and allowed the second-fewest home runs per nine innings in the league.

Masterson was always confident that he would reach that level as a starter.

"I think what kind of got me to where I am is that I didn't throw in the towel," he said.

That goes hand in hand with his easygoing, but hard-working ways.

Those are ideals that were taught to him early on by his parents, whom he wants to take to Jamaica one of these days for a kind of reunion.

"I want to take the whole family," he said. "We never had the means to do it. Now that we have the means to be able to do it, it's finding the time. I want to take everyone and just enjoy it and see what takes place."

And here comes Masterson's smirk again.

He jokes that he could use the trip as a way to recruit more Jamaican-born ballplayers.

"I'd try to get Usain Bolt over there, see what he could do," Masterson said with a laugh. "I'd want to take some of those cricket guys and let's play a little baseball. We've got some bowlers. Turn them into pitchers. See what we can do."

Masterson will show what he can do on Opening Day.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.