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2009-04-23


 2009-04-23
Justin Masterson, the 24-year-old sinkerballer, successfully replaced Daisuke Matsuzaka in the No. 3 spot in the Red Sox rotation yesterday, which says a lot, considering Matsuzaka had 18 wins last season.

Though Masterson hadn't officially been told, he is expected to hang in the rotation for some time because Matsuzaka's rehab from arm fatigue/tendinitis/shoulder strain - call it what you want - might take a few weeks. The general feeling around the Sox is that the next few weeks will be Matsuzaka's spring training, a sign that he didn't do as much work as necessary in the offseason (since he wasn't under their supervision) and then probably did too much too soon in the World Baseball Classic for Japan.

The Sox want Matsuzaka to get more involved with their offseason shoulder strengthening program and continue it during the season. Matsuzaka will play catch tomorrow for the first time since he was shut down after a one-inning start in which he allowed five runs against the A's April 14.

That leaves Masterson, who hit 96 miles per hour on the radar gun yesterday, with the opportunity to be a significant addition to the rotation, a process he started in yesterday's 12-1 win over the Orioles as he went 5 1/3 innings, allowed four hits, one run, struck out three, and walked two.

The ability to go to Masterson without blinking is precisely why the Sox stretched him out in spring training. The Sox hedged on defining Masterson's role for much of camp simply because they knew they wouldn't see Matsuzaka until after the WBC.

Matsuzaka's first two starts told them all they needed to know.

While the depth of Boston's starting pitching has been challenged early, Masterson has been in waiting as the ``save the day'' man. Physically, he probably could have gone far longer than the 84 pitches he lasted yesterday, but the Sox had set 80 as a baseline for this start.

What's obvious is that Masterson is quite a weapon. As he gets more comfortable in the rotation, as he proves he can pitch to lefthanded hitters - which was his Achilles' heel - he could easily turn into this team's Derek Lowe.

Lowe also had problems with lefthanded hitters early in his career, but he found when dealing with tough lefties like Ryan Howard, the best thing to do is throw them slop. Lowe, to this day, has never thrown Howard anything but a breaking ball.

Masterson's last hitter yesterday was Nick Markakis, one of the best lefthanded hitters in the American League. He smacked a single up the middle that almost took Masterson's face off. The young righthander will learn from hits like that.

``Left and right is never really, to me, that big of a thing,'' said Masterson. ``It's really just spotting up my pitches. When pitches go where they're supposed to go, then I'm able to have success both to righties and lefties.

``Most of the hits today - actually, they were off-speed pitches - were balls that missed exactly where we were trying to locate them. You're never going to be perfect, but the key for me is execution.''

What he couldn't explain was the increase in velocity.

``I wanted to keep the intensity I had coming in from the bullpen, when it seemed my velocity kind of elevated, and really just keep that intensity coming into my start,'' he said. ``I was really happy I was able to do that today.''

Terry Francona was as well.

``Masterson not only went out and threw the ball well early, but maintained it, which is not that easy to do,'' said the manager. ``The life on his fastball, the depth on his breaking ball was tremendous from start to end.''

Asked about making another start, Masterson pleaded ignorance, but barring a spring blizzard or a far-fetched trade, of course he will. Whatever he does, he'll approach it the same way. While some pitchers scale down their arsenal when they become relievers and add a pitch when they become starters, Masterson is sticking with what he has.

``That's what's been working,'' he said. ``Just coming and hanging out at the park, cheering the other guys on when it's their time to go. It's been a little different knowing that I'm not going to throw in those games. You kind of watch the game a little differently. But I've just been trying to pitch it the same.''

If his velocity stays up, he could become more of a strikeout pitcher. Yet his style is best suited to pitch to contact and get ground balls.

``I have no problem getting a ground ball on every single pitch, throwing 27 pitches or something,'' he said. ``That would be really cool. I'd have no problem with that because I know these guys work their tail off to make the play, and if they happen not to, I know they'll make it the next time.''

Whatever he is or he becomes, Masterson's presence and flexibility has been impressive. He has shown no fear of any hitter in the majors, in any situation. And in a deep bullpen, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima, or Manny Delcarmen can take over Masterson's setup role while he replaces an 18-game winner in the rotation. Not a bad guy to have in reserve.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo @globe.com.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 23, 2009

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