They were, in many ways, two peas in a pod. Two right-handed prospects born just seven months apart, selected by the Red Sox one year apart and often among the first two names brought up in discussions of the team’s future.
However, by the time June 9, 2010, rolled around, Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson were on remarkably different paths. Buchholz, still with the Sox and coming into his own, was a front-runner for All-Star consideration and among the American League leaders in several major pitching categories. Masterson had one win in his last 18 starts and was 2-12 overall since joining the lowly Cleveland Indians in the Victor Martinez trade last summer.
One had fans and pundits saying, "This is what we’ve been waiting for!" The other was largely forgotten amid a line of ugly statistics and on a team with little to look forward to in 2010.
Heck, even the numbers on their backs tell the story, if you let them. Buchholz has settled comfortably into his now-familiar No. 11, while Masterson still chooses to sport No. 63, the type of digit often given to late-season call-ups.
But it was Masterson who had the Red Sox’ number on Wednesday night, turning the table on his one-time mound mate with a performance for the ages.
"As a pitching matchup, he threw better than I did today," said Buchholz, who allowed three runs in seven innings in Cleveland’s 11-0 victory.
While Buchholz was not bad, Masterson was better than good, throwing the first complete game shutout of his career against the only organization he had known before July 31, 2009. He allowed two hits, walked two and did not let one runner reach second base. Seventeen outs were recorded on groundballs, one aspect of Masterson’s game that attracted the Red Sox to him several years ago when he was an intriguing arm out of San Diego State.
In fashion befitting a man considered one of the nicest in the organization while he was in Boston, Masterson refused to take the bait when asked if it was extra special doing what he did against the Red Sox. He even tossed the credit back to his former teammate.
"It just feels good to get another win," Masterson said. "Clay went out there and pitched a great ball game. He only gave up three hits through all his innings and three runs scored within that.
"It was just fun to have a good battle out there."
The way the season had gone thus far, it suggested the battle would be one-sided. Buchholz had won five straight starts, during which he had posted a 0.99 ERA. With a win Wednesday, he would have had the second-longest road winning streak in Boston’s franchise history, just two behind Roger Clemens’ run of 12 back in the late-1980s.
Masterson, on the other hand, was coming off his first win of the year, but he had walked six in the outing. His ERA was 5.46, his WHIP an unsightly 1.82 and opponents had hit .311 off Masterson coming into Wednesday’s start.
After one inning, however, it was clear who had it working.
Masterson needed 10 pitches to set down the Red Sox in the top of the first, while Buchholz threw 30 in a wild one-run bottom of the first. After four innings, the Indians held a 3-0 lead and Masterson had set down eight in a row, making weak groundballs the norm.
"How many groundballs did he have? Twenty?" Buchholz asked reporters. "Something like that? Coming up through the organization with him, when he’s on, that’s what happens. … Mast did a great job, he definitely deserves the win."
Buchholz did settle down and retired the last nine he faced, but he was just a footnote on a night owned by Masterson, especially after two Red Sox relievers combined to allow eight runs in the eighth.
At that point, the only question on everyone’s mind was whether Masterson would emerge to finish the job. Everyone, that is, but the man of the hour.
"Not in my mind," Masterson said when asked if he had any doubt about finishing the game after a 35-minute wait in the dugout. "I don’t know about anybody else."
When Masterson mowed through the Red Sox in the top of the ninth to finish it, there were no more questions to be asked. Unless you wanted to wonder what might have been.
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