CLEVELAND — Justin Masterson continued the comeback trail Sunday at Progressive Field.
The right-hander, who is vying to return before the regular season is complete, threw a simulated game following the Indians’ series finale with Houston.
Masterson (left oblique strain) felt good enough to exceed the prescribed pitch count of 20, throwing 24 pitches, while bullpen coach Kevin Cash stood at the plate to simulate a batter.
Depending on how Masterson feels today, the next step could be a return to a major league mound for an actual game.
“If he needs to repeat it, we can repeat it,” manager Terry Francona said of another possible simulated game for Masterson. “If not, maybe he’s game-ready.
I don’t think that’s out of the realm of being possible.”
The plan is to have Masterson activated as a reliever for the remainder of the regular season. If the Indians qualify for the postseason, Masterson could switch back to a starting role.
Masterson (14-10, 3.52 ERA in 29 starts) hasn’t pitched since sustaining the injury Sept. 2. Normal recovery time for oblique strains is 4-6 weeks.
In the clutch
In addition to being one of the Indians’ top hitters, left fielder Michael Brantley has displayed a propensity for delivering in big situations — one reason he is nicknamed “Dr. Smooth.”
Brantley, who is batting .280 with nine home runs and 68 RBIs in 145 games on the season, entered Sunday hitting .351 (39-for-111) with runners in scoring position.
“One, he’s just a plain old good hitter, but he doesn’t try to do too much,” Francona said. “He kind of takes what the pitcher gives him. He’ll hit the ball to left field, he stays up the middle and when you make a mistake, he can hammer it.
“He’s not maybe the 120-RBI guy sitting in that 5 hole, but you know you’re going to get a really good at-bat out of him.”
Brantley has been productive in the toughest of situations, batting .339 (21-for-62) with two outs through Saturday.
“It’s been crazy,” first baseman Nick Swisher said. “Just load ’em up for Brantley, give him two outs. He’s done such a great job. He’s had such a tremendous year. I couldn’t be more happy for him.”
Brantley is modest where his clutch hitting is concerned.
“Just getting the run in for my team, that’s the goal of anybody up there in that situation,” Brantley said.
Gaining at the gate
The Indians have ranked near the bottom of the majors in attendance all season, drawing fewer than 10,000 fans twice in September. But for the last two games of the series with Houston, Cleveland had crowds of 26,611 (Saturday) and 26,168 for its largest Sunday attendance of the year.
“I don’t gauge it too much,” Francona said of attendance. “I know the atmosphere at the ballpark the last couple nights was great. It should be. This is a fun team to watch.”
The Indians, who are off today, begin a two-game series against the White Sox on Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. — Cleveland’s final two regular-season games at home.
Ubaldo Jimenez (12-9, 3.39 ERA) opens the set for the Indians, while Danny Salazar (1-3, 3.09) goes for Cleveland on Wednesday (7:05 p.m).
Chicago will start Hector Santiago (4-9, 3.53) on Tuesday.
The Indians have owned the White Sox this season, winning 15 of 17 meetings.
This is only the fourth time in history the Indians have at least four pitchers — Masterson (188), Jimenez (174), Scott Kazmir (151) and Corey Kluber (131) — with 130 or more strikeouts.
* Cleveland entered the day with the American League’s fifth-best record (ninth in the majors) at home (48-30).
* The Indians will begin selling single-game tickets today — online only at Indians.com/2013postseason — to potential wild-card and Division Series games at Progressive Field.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @CAwesomeheimer.