GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Justin Masterson was always one of manager Terry Francona's favorites. That is what made it so hard to call the young pitcher into the manager's office at Camden Yards on that summer day four years ago.
The Red Sox had traded Masterson to the Indians, and Francona dreaded delivering the news.
"Things were happening fast that day," Francona said. "We had all kinds of things going on, and that was a hard one. It was emotional."
During their days together in Boston, the manager saw a pitcher who displayed maturity beyond his years. Francona saw a leader in the making and a player willing to embrace whatever role the ballclub felt made the team better. Masterson had future workhorse written all over him, but he pitched out of the bullpen when the Red Sox had no room in the rotation.
That was then.
Since their brief conversation in Baltimore on July 31, 2009, and the handshake that sealed Masterson's time with Boston, the pitcher has developed into the leader of Cleveland's staff. On Tuesday, he will toe the rubber at Rogers Centre as the Indians' Opening Day starter, facing the Blue Jays to kick off a campaign for the second consecutive season.
In the visiting dugout, Francona will look on during his first regular-season game as manager of the Indians.
Being reunited with Francona has been special for Masterson.
"It's been great," Masterson said. "All the guys have enjoyed it. It's been good to see him. He brings renewed energy having been away from the game for a year, and a little bit of a bad taste in his mouth at the end in Boston. I think he's excited and I think that excitement has worn off on us. We're all excited to get going."
The hiring of Francona -- a two-time World Series champion in Boston -- in October served as the first domino in an aggressive offseason for the Indians. Cleveland signed free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers, and added the likes of Mike Aviles, Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer in trades. The wave of moves has the club hopeful that it can rebound swiftly from last summer's 94-loss disaster.
Most of the winter maneuvering, however, reorganized the Tribe's lineup.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding a starting rotation that labored throughout last season. Masterson is among the pitchers looking to turn around the misfortunes of last year, and the big sinkerballer has displayed his signature calm and confidence throughout this spring. He is eager to embrace the challenge of once again leading the staff.
The 28-year-old Masterson craves that kind of responsibility.
Pitching on Opening Day is where that begins.
"With the new-look Tribe that we have, it's a way to really, truly lead this staff from Day 1," Masterson said. "I would hope it's within everybody, that desire to be the best and just set the example -- impacting lives in some way, shape or form. It doesn't necessarily mean you're always going out and performing the best, but I figure that everyone's goal is to set that example of hard work, dedication and good character.
"Whether it's official or not, that's what I'm going to do. I feel like that's a great way to try and lead."
Last season, when Masterson was coming off an atypical offseason following a left shoulder operation, the right-hander went 11-15 with a 4.93 ERA in 34 starts for Cleveland. He was burned by big innings, allowing 30 percent of his runs (37 of 122) in just three percent of his innings pitched (6 2/3 of 206 1/3). Masterson tied a dubious club record with five starts in which he gave up eight or more runs.
Overall, Cleveland's rotation ended with 76 losses (highest total for the team since 1991), 913 2/3 innings (fewest since 2001) and a 5.25 ERA (fourth highest single-season mark in club history).
Masterson will be key in turning things around.
"I've probably said it a million times," Francona said. "I'm betting on the person."
After the Red Sox traded a 24-year-old Masterson, along with lefty Nick Hagadone (in Cleveland's current bullpen) and Minor Leaguer Bryan Price, to land catcher Victor Martinez in '09, the sinkerballer transitioned back to a starting role.
Leaving Boston, and Francona, was hard at first for the pitcher, though.
"That was a tough one," Masterson said. "Tito had been a big part of helping me get and stay in the big leagues. He wanted me when all the starter roles were filled. He wanted me in the bullpen. He said, 'I'd love to have you pitch. I love seeing you pitch.' So I owe him a lot, as far as where I am today, because of that opportunity."
Masterson showed steady improvement after joining the Tribe, too.
Down the stretch in 2009, Masterson went 1-7 with a 4.55 ERA in 11 outings. He then went 6-13 with a 4.70 ERA in 34 starts in 2010, leading into his breakout campaign in '11. That season, Masterson went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA over 34 appearances, appearing to emerge as one of the American League's top young starters.
This spring, Masterson has worked to recover what worked so well two seasons ago.
"I wanted to come in and be easy," he said. "It's about not trying to overthrow, making sure we get through our pitches, and mixing in some changeups. We were able to do that really good early on, and each game I thought I've gotten better every time, whether or not sometimes the results didn't show it. I was getting lots of ground balls and things later on in the camp. That's what you want to see."
What Francona has seen is the type of pitcher and person he always believed Masterson would become for a team.
"He was actually that way at a young age," Francona said. "He was so mature at a young age. We gave him so much responsibility when he first came to the big leagues, because we trusted him so much. He's older now, but I thought he was kind of wise beyond his years before that."
And when Francona accepted the job in Cleveland?
"That was one of my first phone calls," he said with a smile. "He's such a good kid."