BOSTON -- Justin Masterson has been getting by without his best stuff all season. Throughout the ups and downs that have predictably come along with that reality, Indians manager Terry Francona has maintained that the pitcher's best days are ahead of him.
The wait continues for Cleveland.
On Friday night, Masterson struggled en route to the quickest exit of his career for a normal start, sending the Indians on their way to a 10-3 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The defeat was the fourth in a row for the Tribe, which is trying to regain the rhythm it had while rattling off nine wins in the 10 games before the recent slide.
As for Masterson, he has been searching for consistency all year.
"It's been an interesting season for me," Masterson said.
In his latest step backwards for the Indians (33-35), Masterson left after logging only 59 pitches in two-plus innings. Excluding rain-shortened outings or games affected by injury, it marked both the fewest pitches and innings in a start for the sinkerballer in his career. Francona pulled Masterson when he did in an effort to stop the bleeding.
Following a crisp first inning, in which Masterson induced three straight groundouts, the right-hander issued consecutive walks to open both the second and third. In the second, A.J. Pierzynski made the pitcher pay with a two-run double and Jackie Bradley Jr. later came through with an RBI triple. After Masterson issued the two free passes in the third, Francona turned to the bullpen.
At that juncture, the Indians were locked in a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox.
"We want to win the game," Francona said. "Knowing Masty's track record, the hope is that he can reel it back in and kind of get in sync and reel off a couple innings like he can. It just looked like he didn't look real crisp and he wasn't commanding."
Masterson (4-5, 5.05 ERA) understood why his manager made the early walk to the mound.
"It's still a ballgame and he doesn't see any positive adjustment coming out of me," Masterson said. "So, why wouldn't he take me out at that point in time?"
Rookie Kyle Crockett -- called up from Triple-A Columbus before the game -- entered in relief of Masterson and gave up a one-out, two-run double to Mike Napoli that pushed Cleveland behind, 5-3. That put the final touches on Masterson's line, which included five runs on three hits with the four walks and no strikeouts.
Against the Red Sox on June 2, Masterson enjoyed one stretch with 25 consecutive strikes thrown. This time around, the starter logged more balls (31) than strikes (28).
"I threw too many balls. That's more or less what happened," Masterson said. "I put the bullpen in a bad spot. They had to come in way too early before they're supposed to come in."
Complicating matters for the Tribe was the fact that Red Sox right-hander John Lackey kept Cleveland's offense in check after an early outburst. Carlos Santana delivered a two-run home run (his eighth shot of the season) in the second and Asdrubal Cabrera contributed an RBI double in the third, but then Lackey cruised through 16 batters in a row without allowing a hit.
That streak was snapped with a two-out double by Cabrera in the seventh, but it was too late for the Tribe.
After Masterson's exit, the Indians' bullpen performed admirably for four frames before running into trouble in the seventh. Left-hander Marc Rzepczynski, righty Bryan Shaw and lefty Josh Outman combined to allow five hits in the inning, paving the way for a four-run push by the Red Sox that effectively put the game away.
"You know when you go to the bullpen that early," Francona said, "if somebody has a hiccup, you're going to pay for it."
In the eighth, Xander Bogaerts upped the ante with a solo blast off Cleveland setup man Cody Allen, sending a 3-2 pitch bouncing off a light tower beyond the 37-foot-high Green Monster in left field.
As a result, Masterson found his way once again to the loss column, snapping his modest two-game winning streak. While the righty had shown signs of progress of late -- two runs allowed over his past two starts combined -- he has posted a 6.82 ERA with a 1.79 WHIP across his last seven turns. In that span, Masterson has nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (27) in 33 innings.
The recent seven-start slide follows a five-start run during which Masterson posted a 2.94 ERA for Cleveland. The big righty, who has battled through diminished velocity all season, had a 5.87 ERA in his first three outings of the season before that solid run.
Masterson and pitching coach Mickey Callaway will go back to the drawing board.
"Rather than getting frustrated, I think we want to just help where we can," Francona said. "Mickey kills himself trying to help these guys, so I don't think we'll let it get frustrating. We just want to help."
Simply put, it has been a roller-coaster ride of a season for Masterson.
He went off the rails again in Boston.