Mastering a New Role

Evan Brunell@evanbrunellFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2008

Believe it of not but Justin Masterson once did a reasonable impersonation of Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Masterson, who was optioned to Pawtucket on July 7 and recalled by Boston on July 20 when David Aardsma was placed on the D.L, joined the Wareham Gatemen in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League for the 2005 season - presumably as a starter.

But …

“It was a situation similar to what they have in Boston,” said Masterson, who was Boston’s second-round pick in the 2006 draft. “The starting rotation was all set and everybody came who was invited. I was a temporary player who they wanted on the team, so they asked me if I wanted to be their closer.

“I said ‘If it keeps me on the team, sure.’ That was the only summer I’ve worked out of the bullpen. It was fun and the overall experience out there was great.”

Masterson wound up posting 10 saves in 11 opportunities and recording a 1.15 ERA.

Now, flash forward three years and the 23-year-old Masterson once again isn’t starting because of Boston’s decision to “reprogram” him as a reliever, ostensibly as a setup man for Papelbon - which could plug a hole that’s swallowed up the likes of Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, Mike Timlin, etc. And which is exactly what he did in Wednesday’s extra-inning victory at Seattle.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a problem at all,” said PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur of Masterson’s transition from a starter to a reliever. “The makeup of Justin Masterson is he’s a guy that just wants to pitch. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the starting rotation or the bullpen.

“He’s going out there to help his team.”

Masterson certainly helped Boston as a starter after he was promoted from Portland.

In nine starts, he was 4-3 with a 3.67 ERA and only 40 hits allowed in 54 innings. But proving he can pitch “X” number of times per week could determine his value in the long run.

“No matter what, you’re feeling it out,” said Masterson. “I have the mental knowledge of what takes place (as a reliever). I know what it’s like to come in. As you continue to develop you continue to figure out who you are and what makes you tick.

“Every time out there I’ll be trying to understand myself and really see if my body works the way it did. Do I still need a little bit of time to warm up? That’s really the only difference.”

Boston didn’t exactly stage a major production of the organization’s decision to send the 6-6, 250-pound right-hander with a nasty three-quarter-arm delivery to the bullpen.

“They pretty much didn’t say anything,” said Masterson, who was a combined 12-8 with a 2.33 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 153 2/3 innings last year between Lancaster and Portland. “They just said you’re going down to the bullpen. They kind of said we respect you enough that you have an understanding of what you need to do.

“You need to figure out for yourself how things will work. But, that’s the way I like it anyway. There isn’t a timetable but if there is a need then I should be ready to go.”

While it isn’t unusual for a starter to be converted to a reliever, just the opposite is true when a catcher is converted to a pitcher.

Masterson, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica where his father worked at the Jamaican Theological Seminary, basically was a catcher up to the time he entered Beaver Creek (Ohio) High School.

“I was a little huskier and was a catcher growing up,” he said. “Of course, everyone plays everywhere but I like to think I was somewhat athletic. As I came up, I was catching and made the JV team my freshman year.

“I tried pitching but it didn’t work out. But, ironically, I did a little pitching near the end of the year and did well. But it wasn’t until my senior year that I didn’t catch at all. That’s when the pitching instructor said I had really improved so let’s stick with pitching.

“That’s when the transition happened,” continued Masterson, “during my senior year when I was getting ready to go to college.”

College, initially, was Bethel (Ind.) College, a small liberal arts Christian school whose baseball program never will be confused with Arizona State’s.

What transpired at Wareham, other than his taking a shot at closing, also had a major impact on his career.

“I met one of my best friends, Bruce Billings, who was a pitcher at San Diego State (Billings is pitching in the Rockies’ organization),” recalled Masterson. “He said ‘You know what? I’d like to have you come and pitch for us.’ He said the team was good but needed a little more pitching.

“Then, I found out that (Hall of Famer) Tony Gwynn was the coach and that was kind of cool. No matter what, I knew I’d have a good experience even if we didn’t happen to play well.”

Obviously, Masterson pitched well enough to get picked early in the 2006 draft by Boston. And it’s also obvious to Masterson that he still needs to “tweak” his mechanics.

“If you look at how I was mechanically, I was bending over a little more and making it harder for my arm to get over and through,” he said of his time with Boston. “The ball still was moving but it was starting a foot off (the plate) and moving over there. I know in my head if I put this right down the middle it’s going to work.

“I was trying to figure out what was going on. I know if I throw a good sinker (which is his premier pitch) in the zone, either a guy will swing and miss or I’ll get a groundball.”

That would work out fine for the Red Sox regardless of where they use Masterson, who’s warming to the idea of being a set-up man.

“That would be great,” he said. “Hopefully I would have a long career in the major leagues. It would be exciting to hand the ball to such a great closer like Papelbon.”

Good point.