Masterson, bullpen help Indians blank A’s in opener
OAKLAND — For the second time in three years, Justin Masterson pitched great on Opening Day and did not earn a decision. The biggest difference though is that this time the bullpen was able to deliver the win.
Not that there weren’t a few nervous moments throughout the way.
There are many adjectives that can describe the Tribe’s 2-0 win over the Athletics at the O.co Coliseum on Monday — frustrating (for the 11 runners left on base), redemption (for Nyjer Morgan getting the game-winning RBI) but the one that stands out is thrill ride. For that you can thank Cody Allen and John Axford, who both will play a prominent role in the bullpen.
Masterson continued a strong spring by pitching seven innings of three-hit ball. Mark Rzepczynski and Cody Allen worked out of some jams in the eighth and John Axford converted his first save opportunity as the Indians’ closer as Cleveland recorded a shutout on Opening Day for the first time since 2002.
"It was as good a tone as you can set. It was not the prettiest game but it worked out really well for us," said Masterson, who has a 0.90 ERA in three Opening Day starts.
The Indians got a huge break in the eighth when Josh Donaldson slammed a 2-2 fastball by Allen to the deepest part of the park. Everyone, including Donaldson, thought the ball was gone which is why he and the other runners on the base admired it. When it hit the top of the wall, it became one of the longer singles you will see because Morgan fielded it cleanly and limited the damage.
For Allen, who had a 2.25 ERA in 16 appearances in the Tribe’s September run to the playoffs last year that allowed him to settle down. He struck out Jed Lowrie and then Brandon Moss grounded out to Nick Swisher to get out of the inning.
"It was kind of relief and when I saw the guy didn’t score it was a big relief. Then it gave me a chance to get out of it and get a couple outs," Allen said. "I was fighting it a little bit with it being Opening Day and with the adrenaline pumping. Once I got strike one on Lowry it allowed me to relax and make some pitches."
Even Francona was surprised that Donaldson’s ball didn’t leave the yard but he did have faith that Allen would get out of the inning unscathed.
To prove the fickle nature of bullpens, the Indians scored both of their runs in the ninth off Jim Johnson, who was making his Oakland debut after having 101 saves the past two seasons with Baltimore.
With the bases loaded and one out, Morgan’s sacrifice fly to center scored Asdrubal Cabrera with the go-ahead run. A Nick Swisher single up the middle got David Murphy home and a two-run cushion.
From there it was up to Axford, who in his five previous seasons has not started out of the gate well. In his opening appearances since being called up in 2009 he had allowed nine earned runs in 4 1/3 innings for an ERA of 18.71.
It was a 26-pitch inning that included two walks, but Axford struck out two, including Nick Punto for the final out of the game. In other words, the tightrope act is something that Cleveland fans have been used to seeing from their closers. If watching Axford you had flashbacks to Chris Perez not being able to deliver a save in the 2012 against Toronto, you weren’t alone.
"It could have worked out better but no runs and we ended up with the win so it was perfect. I’ve never started the season without an ERA so this turned out much better," Axford said.
Francona said last week that the most difficult position to get a read on coming out of spring training is closer because they aren’t in those situations during spring training. Axford said he was calm and needs to do a better job on getting his breaking ball across.
"My focus was pretty good. Whatever nerves were supposed to be there they weren’t," he said. "I need to focus on a couple pitches that were close borderline and move them in. If I do that there will be less pitches and two less walks."
What made Francona happy after the game is that the Indians were able to take advantage of that final break of Donaldson’s ball not going out. Against Oakland starter Sonny Gray, they were able to work counts deep and got the leadoff guy on base in three of the six innings he pitched but couldn’t get anything across. They might have in the fourth if it wasn’t for a case of baserunning brain lock by Carlos Santanta that took them out of the inning.
Maybe that is why it is appropriate that the Indians took advantage of an Oakland baserunning gaffe.
"We caught some breaks but when you do you have to take advantage of them which we were able to do late," Francona said.