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Masterson ready to set positive tone for Indians

Masterson ready to set positive tone for Indians play video for Masterson ready to set positive tone for Indians

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Indians are asking Justin Masterson to lead the way. Cleveland is giving him the ball on Opening Day and assigning him the task of paving the path to a turnaround for a rotation riddled with problems a year ago.

It will be a daunting challenge, and no one inside the Indians is trying to paint a different picture. Still, the optimism annually associated with Spring Training is certainly present, as is the confidence that Cleveland's rotation can improve over its lackluster showing last year.

Much of that faith stems from the team's belief that Masterson will turn things around.

"I'm kind of betting on the person," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I've been around him probably longer than anybody. I think he's at a point in his career where he understands the responsibility and he actually wants it. I think he'd be a good leader."

Francona's history with Masterson dates back to their days in Boston together.

The Red Sox -- managed by Francona from 2004-11 -- traded the sinkerballer to the Indians midway through the '09 season. Back then, the makeup of Boston's pitching staff made it necessary to use Masterson out of the bullpen. Once in Cleveland, the big right-hander began his transition to becoming an innings-eating starter.

Masterson found a comfort level in that role two years ago, but last season saw him take a step backward. The pitcher lost 15 games and saw the command of his signature sinker come and go throughout the summer. He was the victim of big innings that spiraled out of control, leading to multiple outings with bloated stat lines.

After last season's struggles, Masterson was recently asked when he thinks he will be able to turn the corner.

"We're there," Masterson said. "It's a new season, so the corner has been turned. We're starting anew, starting fresh."

When discussing last season, Masterson is also quick to note how a handful of appearances avalanched on him.

"It was really just seven or eight games last year," said the pitcher. "We'll turn those around this year."

As a whole, the 27-year-old Masterson went 11-15 with a 4.93 ERA in 34 outings, during which he had 159 strikeouts and 88 walks over 206 1/3 innings. He matched a single-season club record by allowing eight or more runs in five starts (Mel Harder, 1936). Masterson had seven starts with seven or more runs allowed.

Digging even further, Masterson had eight innings in which he allowed four or more runs within his 34 starts. That sampling includes 37 runs allowed in just 6 2/3 innings of work. Another way to phrase it is that Masterson allowed 30 percent of his runs (37 of 122) in only 3 percent of the innings he logged for the Tribe in 2012.

"He had some games that got away from him that drove his ERA up," Francona said. "Consistency in our game is one of the biggest and toughest [things] to do."

Masterson believes he has an explanation for the big innings.

The pitcher said that, following periods of success within a game, he would sometimes push a little harder in an effort to gain more velocity on his fastball. When innings would start to get out of hand, he would press even more, trying anything to stop the bleeding. It was an in-game downward spiral that led to early exits and an overworked bullpen.

"It was usually the first couple innings would be decent, and then we would try to turn it on," Masterson said. "And those would be the points where a couple runs would score and then, after a couple runs scored, now we're trying harder, and it's just getting worse, and it's snowballing and you want to slap yourself in the face when you get done."

Masterson's plan for this season is to try to stick with the approach that is working at the time, adjusting only when necessary.

"It's just the ability to just relax, not try to do too much, finish your pitches, make them work," Masterson said. "If they come in at 90-91 mph, that's OK. I don't always have to throw it at 95-97. If they come a little bit slower, you always know you have a little something in the tank.

"It's trying sometimes to maybe pitch a little bit more than just trying to overpower guys."

That is closer to how Masterson operated in 2011, when he turned in a breakout showing and looked like one of the American League's more promising young arms. He went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA in 34 outings, striking out 158 and walking 65 over 216 innings.

So far this spring, Masterson has pitched decently enough, giving the Indians hope that he is on his way to a solid comeback campaign. In his most recent start, the sinkerballer created nine outs via grounders, including three double plays, with three strikeouts and no walks in four innings against the Dodgers on Wednesday.

That is the kind of pitcher the Indians believe Masterson can be this season.

Masterson is embracing his role as the rotation leader.

"Whether I was doing Opening Day or not," he said, "I feel like I'm one of the leaders on this staff, a guy who's going to go out there and, by word and by deed, set the tone for the way the Indians go about their business."

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.

{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }