PHOENIX — Though nothing is official, it’s a safe bet right-hander Justin Masterson will be on the mound when the Indians open the regular season April 2 in Toronto.
This year, Masterson would prefer to actually pitch like a No. 1 starter — something he didn’t always do in 2012 — rather than just earn the distinction by default.
“As the ace, I look to be the leader of the staff and set an example and go out there and set the tone,” said Masterson, who made his exhibition debut Monday in a 14-10 win over the A’s at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. “You do that by going out and performing, which didn’t always happen last year.
“So my goal is to be the leader of this pitching staff and to set the example, and when something needs to happen, guys will look to me to go out there and get the job done.”
Masterson’s first career go-round atop a rotation last year was an inconsistent one. He pitched brilliantly at times, but was equally as bad on too many other occasions. It all added up to an un-ace-like effort — 11-15 with a 4.93 ERA in 34 starts. The Indians were expecting much more from Masterson after a breakout season as a starter in 2011 — 12-10, 3.21 ERA in 34 games.
“There were seven or eight (outings) that were just really bad and they just really accumulated,” Masterson said. “Instead of limiting it to four or five, it ended up being seven or eight. Aside from those ones, everything else was actually really good. That’s why it was so difficult.”
According to Masterson, 28, locating the problem wasn’t as hard.
“Coming off shoulder surgery, to prove that I’m still strong and that I’m still there, I came in over-throwing,” said Masterson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his no-throwing shoulder prior to the 2012 season. “It worked out at times. At other times, I tried to do too much and it took a little sink off the ball.
“You try to do a little more and by doing more less is what happened.”
With a renewed focus, Masterson is off to a positive start this spring.
His first exhibition outing Monday couldn’t have gone much better for a sinkerball pitcher. He retired five of the six hitters he faced on groundballs, while adding a strikeout.
“Masty was good,” said Cleveland manager Terry Francona, who managed Masterson in Boston for close to two years before the Indians acquired him in a trade for Victor Martinez during the 2009 season. “He was down. He was in the zone.”
“The ball was on the ground and that’s what you like to see, and some heaters got on some hitters,” Masterson said. “I mean, it’s still early, but you wonder where the arm is. It’s nice to mix and match some change-ups in there, too, and have them in the zone and have them not get crushed for a homer. It was good.”
The Indians and Masterson are hoping their ace can say that more times than not this season.