Entering the season, Indians closer Chris Perez was probably pretty high up on the “closer most likely to get replaced” lists, but somehow he kept surviving. He kept the job through a sore shoulder, he kept it through drug charges, and he kept it through home run troubles that led to an awful 5.08 FIP. But finally, in the waning days of the season and in the midst of a miraculous run to the playoffs, manager Terry Francona could stand no more and finally removed Perez from the job on Friday.
Now, as the Indians welcome Tampa Bay to Cleveland for the one-game American League wild card game on Wednesday, Francona is suddenly without a defined closer. But that’s not the problem it might otherwise be, because what he does have available is an intriguingly unorthodox option — Opening Day starter Justin Masterson, who made his first All-Star team this year and has exactly zero career saves to his name. Masterson missed most of the final month with an oblique injury and is not considered to be stretched out enough to start until later in the playoffs, if at all.
When asked, Francona told MLB.com that he was undecided about his plans, but it was clear the idea of using Masterson in the late innings held appeal to him:
“We went from losing our best pitcher to probably being the only team left in baseball that could have a guy finish the game potentially throwing three innings,” Francona said. “That’s quite a weapon. We plan to use it. That’s kind of the way we’ve played all year. Somebody picks somebody else up at a different time. We may not do it in a conventional style, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
If Francona does intend to use Masterson for a three-inning save, it will be more than a minor rarity. In the last 20 years, there’s been exactly one three-inning save in the postseason, and as you may have guessed, it wasn’t so much “nailing down a late lead” as it was “exploiting the loopholes of the save rule,” since it came in 1997 when Brian Anderson pitched the final three innings of a 10-3 Cleveland win over Florida in Game 4 of the World Series.
Still, we’ve seen starting pitchers suddenly become quality relief options in the postseason before — looking at you, Tim Lincecum — and whether it’s three outs or three innings, the only bar Masterson needs to clear is being better than Perez in a tight spot. Considering how awful Perez was down the stretch (.345/.406/.678 line against in 21 games since August 1), that seems easily doable, and Masterson’s three late-season relief appearances only helped to give Francona confidence in him.
On September 25, Masterson entered a game where the Tribe were up 7-2 over the White Sox in the ninth inning, striking out two while allowing a single. Two days later, he entered with a 10-6 lead in the eighth in Minnesota and (after walking Trevor Plouffe) proceeded to collect three consecutive called strikeouts. Two days after that, still in Minnesota, Masterson collected two strikeouts while hitting one in 1.2 innings to finish off a 5-1 win. All told, he struck out 7 of the 14 batters he faced, allowing a single, a hit-by-pitch, and a walk.
Now, what Masterson didn’t do is enter a tight game with a one-run lead, or really even face major-league quality competition. (Even at full strength, the White Sox & Twins were atrocious this year, and by late September both had basically given up.) But he did prove that he’s healthy, effective, and able to be used on only one day of rest. Besides, it wasn’t all that long ago that he was successfully coming out of the bullpen in October for Francona’s 2008 Red Sox, when he allowed two earned runs in 9.2 innings, so it’s not like this pair has never done this before.
The best bet here then is that Francona will attempt to get a good six innings or so out of rookie starter Danny Salazar on Wednesday night, then back him up with Masterson. Maybe that’s for a full three innings, though that could be pitting strength (only Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw were harder against righty bats this year) against strength (the Rays had the fourth-best team wRC+ against righty pitching), or maybe it’s just for as long as the situation calls for it, with guys like Matt Albers, Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw, and Joe Smith filling in where appropriate.
What does seem clear is that Perez is no longer in the mix, and Masterson is primed to take some of those high-leverage innings on Wednesday night. That’s an easy win: Perez was arguably the worst Cleveland pitcher this year while Masterson was among the best. As we know, the highest leverage situations don’t always come in the ninth inning, so no matter when Francona ends up using Masterson, any pitches he ends up throwing that Perez doesn’t makes the Indians much more likely to succeed in the late innings, and could possibly help swing the game Cleveland’s way.