CLEVELAND -- The Indians are hoping and praying that the old Justin Masterson is officially back for good. Cleveland has seen flashes of the pitcher who emerged as a staff leader a year ago, but it has taken time for the sinkerballer to provide his past consistency.
On Friday night, Masterson was in fine form against the Pirates, spinning a seven-inning gem that paved the way for a 2-0 Interleague victory for the Indians at Progressive Field. It was the third strong performance in a row for the right-hander, giving a Cleveland club in contention reason to feel a corner has been turned.
"If he continues to throw the ball like that, then we're in business," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
Masterson's signature sinker was heavy and his slider -- as Acta saw it -- was as sharp as it's been all season. Toss in a four-seam fastball that was clocking in at 96 mph at times and it is easy to see why Masterson was able to pile up seven strikeouts in a 10-batter stretch between the second and fourth innings.
During his seven frames, Masterson scattered four hits and ended with three walks in the 109-pitch performance. Over his past three starts, following an eight-run outing against the Royals on May 29, Masterson has yielded just four runs with 18 strikeouts over 20 innings for a 1.80 ERA.
"We've been feeling good," Masterson said. "I've been consistent and have been able to have a decent feeling every time out."
Acta said Masterson (3-6) has been better than decent.
"Fantastic," said the manager. "I can't say enough about the job he did. I'm very happy because this is the third outing in a row where he has pitched the way he pitched for us last year."
This is why the Indians (33-30), who are currently in second place in the American League Central, named Masterson the club's Opening Day starter. Masterson has the ability to eat innings and force hitters to play into his hand. Against the Pirates (32-31) -- a club less familiar with him -- Masterson did precisely that.
"First time they saw him," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You can watch as much tape as you want, when you get in the box, it's different. The first time around, I think the guys were just trying to get to know him."
They might not be interested in a second date.
Pittsburgh mounted its biggest threat in the fourth inning, when it loaded the bases against Masterson. The big righty walked Andrew McCutchen with one out and later gave up a single to Casey McGehee and walk to Pedro Alvarez with two outs. Unfazed, Masterson struck out Jose Tabata to escape unscathed.
In the sixth, the Pirates again looked poised for a breakthrough when Neil Walker led off with a ground-rule double and promptly advanced to third base on a groundout. Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis then delivered a rally-killing defensive masterpiece that Acta described as "the play of the game."
With the infield playing in, Garrett Jones lofted a pitch into shallow right field. Kipnis, who had taken a few steps back prior to the pitch, tracked down the ball and made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch.
"Tremendous play," Acta said. "He showed his athleticism."
Kipnis quickly spun and threw the ball to the plate, but Walker did not dare try to tag up to score.
"I got a good jump on the ball, fortunately," said Kipnis, who is a former outfielder. "I was going back and I knew he'd probably be tagging on that one, so I knew if I made the catch I'd be turning and firing. Fortunately, I got a good read on it and I was able to make the play.
"I was happy. I've been waiting to show people the outfield skills and just haven't been able to with all the ground balls. It was fun. I'm very happy I got moved back five to seven feet right before that one. It was a big play at a big time in the game."
Masterson -- no stranger to low run support -- did not need much help from the Indians' offense on this evening. That was fortunate, because Cleveland struggled to solve Pittsburgh righty James McDonald (5-3) in his six innings. The Tribe's lone run off McDonald came in the third, when Carlos Santana shot a pitch down the third-base line and into left for an RBI double.
Over his past eight starts, Masterson has received just 15 runs of support (fewer than two runs per game). It has been a similar stretch to last season, when the pitcher went through an 11-start stretch with only 22 runs from Cleveland's offense.
"There's not much of a margin for error, usually," Masterson said with a laugh. "That makes it fun. That's where you want to be. Close ballgames are great. ... I've got to make sure no one scores. That's the job of the pitcher -- make sure no one scores."
In the eighth inning, Michael Brantley plated an insurance run with an RBI single to center field off Pirates reliever Juan Cruz. That base hit extended Brantley's career-best hitting streak to 22 games, which is the longest such run in the Majors this season.
"Michael is a cool cat, man," Acta said. "That streak was on the line there and he wasn't even thinking about that. He was just thinking about driving in the run."
Armed with that 2-0 cushion, Indians closer Chris Perez slammed the door on the Pirates for his 21st save of the season.
It was Masterson, however, who led the way to victory.
"That's the kind of pitcher we expect," Kipnis said. "We know he has that kind of stuff."