Ailing ace: It’s time for the Indians to shut down Justin Masterson

CLEVELAND — When Terry Francona finally moved Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher down in the batting order in mid-May he acknowledged that he got the point where he might have been more stubborn than patient.

We have reached that point with Justin Masterson.

For the past three weeks, Francona, Masterson and the Indians have run the gamut of reasons why the right-hander has struggled from a nagging problem with his right knee to control issues. Frankly it is both.

Masterson was slated to pitch on June 29 in Seattle but his start was pushed back three days due to the knee. It didn’t do much good as he went just three innings on July 1 against the Dodgers and allowed three runs, seven hits and three walks while striking out seven. After the game, both Francona and Masterson believed his struggles were due more control problems than the knee and there were no discussions of putting him on the disabled list.

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On Monday night against the Yankees it got worse. In a 5-3 loss at Progressive Field, Masterson matched his shortest start of the season by going two innings and allowing five runs on six hits with three walks, a hit batter and a strikeout. Of the 54 pitches thrown by Masterson, only 24 were strikes.

Francona was asked after the game if it was time to place Masterson on the DL. The only thing that Francona would allow is that it would be discussed. Those discussions started less than five minutes after Masterson did postgame interviews as he accompanied pitching coach Mickey Callaway to the manager’s office.

When asked about how he felt health-wise, Masterson said: "I think I feel good. Who knows? It’s a tick you’re so close and yet so far. I felt like tonight was going to be such a great one. I had a great bullpen session and got some things in."

Masterson’s assessment of his performance was spot-on — the first inning was fun, after that it wasn’t.

After giving up a leadoff single to Brett Gardner, Masterson got out of the first by retiring the next three hitters. He threw only 13 pitches, which was progress considering that in his last two outings he threw 37 at Los Angeles and 27 at Arizona.

In the second, Masterson’s struggles returned. The first seven in the inning reached base and the Yankees scored three. The damage would have been worse if it wasn’t for a base-running blunder and a double play.

"The first inning looked OK but after that again it was command. He fell behind and threw some pitches where he got hit pretty hard," Francona said.

Masterson has failed to work longer than four innings in four of his past five starts, including three straight, and has gone 0-2 with a 9.50 ERA in that span. In those 18 innings, he has allowed 19 runs and 27 hits with 17 walks, three hit batters and 19 strikeouts.

If the Indians would place Masterson on the DL, he would likely miss just two starts due to the All-Star break, which is the same number he would have missed had they done it after the Dodgers game. Knowing Francona’s loyalty to his key players, and with this being a vital 10-game homestand, he tried to give Masterson one more opportunity to set things right. It ended up being the wrong choice.

"You’re always frustrated when you don’t do well. It is something so minute, looking at video and stuff as a big and loose guy you just have to get back, do it and get it done," Masterson said. "There’s still a lot to the season and we’ve got a lot of good things ahead. We have to be good in the second half."

For Masterson’s sake, the only way that is going to happen is to shut him down for a couple weeks.