"In the short term, no, it's not a big deal," Indians pitcher Justin Masterson said. "Over a long season, absolutely, you need to have somebody who's going to do that thing. But where we're at, I think we're perfect."
Indians manager Terry Francona agrees, and that is largely due to the fact that Masterson is now in the bullpen for the Tribe. The big sinkerballer suffered a left oblique strain on Sept. 2, but returned to the mound before the end of the season. Masterson came back as a reliever, because the injury requires that he gradually build up his pitch count.
That has turned one of the American League's top starting pitchers into an unexpected focal point of Cleveland's bullpen. In 193 innings this season, Masterson has induced 241 groundouts and piled up 195 strikeouts in his first All-Star season for the Indians. In 3 2/3 innings out of the 'pen down the stretch, the right-hander gave up no runs and one hit, while striking out seven.
In a perfect world, starter Danny Salazar would log six innings against the Rays in Wednesday's Wild Card Game in Cleveland, 8 p.m. ET on TBS, and Masterson would follow with three frames to close things out. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said Masterson currently has the clearance to go four innings or up to around 65 pitches.
"When Masty got hurt, we lost our ace," Francona said. "Then, when Masty got healthy, we acquired a guy that can pitch out of the bullpen multiple innings. So we went from really feeling like we'd lost one of our key guys to gaining a huge weapon. And that's the way we kind of plan on using him."
Former closer Chris Perez was stripped of his ninth-inning duties during the last series of the season, leaving relievers such as Joe Smith, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers and Marc Rzepczynski, among others, to pick up the slack. Now, that group has Masterson as well, and the Wild Card roster might include another starter such as Corey Kluber as even more relief insurance.
This is one situation where the players seem fine with not having a true closer.
"Masty is kind of the secret weapon down there now," Allen said. "You can bring him in if you need a punchout. You can bring him in if you need a double play. ... There's different ways to do [the ninth]. I think the way [Francona] has set up our bullpen throughout the year, we've all pitched in different innings and we've all had success in different innings. I actually think it sets it up where it helps us out."