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Q+A: Justin Masterson on his path back to the big leagues

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It's been a tough couple years for Justin Masterson. The righty had established himself as a solid young starter prior to the 2014 season, when he and his agent spoke with the Indians about an extension that ultimately never came to fruition. He had a poor 2014 with the Indians and Cardinals, then headed to the Red Sox in 2015 and didn't fare much better. His velocity in both seasons was way down from his Indians days, when his fastball averaged around 92 MPH. He had arthroscopic shoulder surgery last September and is now trying to reestablish himself in Indianapolis, near his offseason home. He will start for Indy tomorrow in place of Jameson Taillon. I spoke to him Tuesday about how his comeback attempt is going.

How's your shoulder?

The shoulder's doing pretty good. Nice and healthy. Isn't hurting anymore.

Everything back to normal?

I mean, anatomy-wise, yeah, everything's back to normal.

What's the distinction you're making there?

Uh -- there's no pain. Does it feel the strongest it could be? Probably not. Is everything coming along pretty well? Absolutely.

Do you feel that's going to improve as the season goes on?

Yeah. Talking to guys who have had shoulder surgery, that just comes as you go. It's been good. Nice to get out into some different competition, if you will. It's a little overthrown and rotational your first time getting in a real situation in probably about nine months, but it was nice. The arm doesn't hurt. I was throwing some BP fastballs out there, but I'm just working through it in order to get back to where I expect to be.

Where is your velocity right now?

I think upper 80s, somewhere around there. I've always had it where -- I've got a range of 10 miles an hour in my velocity. It drops a little bit and goes up a little bit. But I'd say the upper 80s is where it's at as we've been ironing it out, getting rid of some of the bad habits I've had over the past month or so.

What kinds of bad habits?

When the arm hurts, you start flying open more with your lower half to allow the arm to come through. You start cutting pitches off. So for the last couple years, me not being at full strength, you start doing those little things, compensating, as most athletes do, when something isn't feeling as good as it should. Now the shoulder's healthy, so over the last month, I've been working through those. And of course, you get in game situations, and your default is to go to some of those patterns. So now you have to break some of those patterns in a league with stiffer competition.

Were you surprised at how the last few years unfolded for you?

Not with the way I felt [laughing]. No, not really. They've kind of gone, at some points, better than I expected, and at some points not as well as I hoped. It's been a part of the journey. It's been, not always enjoyable, but fun.

Any regrets that you weren't able to reach a long-term deal with Cleveland?

No. The only one is that maybe I could have found out my shoulder isn't as good as it could be, and I could have had surgery earlier [laughing]. But aside from that, I'm still convinced that a long-term deal probably wouldn't have been reached, simply because of how stringent [teams] can be with the way things look. They're going to take a look at my shoulder and other things.

And then if you reach the deal, it doesn't even [become official].

Yeah, if you reach the deal and go through physicals, they're like, "You know what, we don't want to take this risk." So not really.

What inspired you to sign with the Pirates?

Well, multiple things. Just the quality of the organization, the people in it, the way they do things. It was kind of like, "Hey, we'll help you, [and] you can help us." And also the fact that I live in Indianapolis, and if I happen to be in Triple-A for a little bit, I can be at home. It allows me to be with my family a little bit too.

You already addressed this a bit, but what do you feel you need to improve to get back to the big leagues?

It's just reps. That's half of it. It depends on what Pittsburgh's going to be looking for. Will the velocity come back by the end of this season? I don't know. Do I think it will come back? Yeah, as strength gains, as we get reps out there. You need to get out there to get the reps [and] to get comfortable. If [I] get more comfortable with the mechanics that I've done for a long time, [but] that I got away from for a couple years. Some of it's just going out there these first few weeks, getting my feet wet, and then it's competing time -- not that I'm not competing before then.

Would you be interested in pitching in relief, if it comes to that?

Oh, either way. I'll take it as it comes. And for me and for them, as you evaluate, it's just going to be, "How's it going? You getting people out?" Maybe the velocity creeps into the low 90s. Maybe it stays in the upper 80s, but there's still late action, a good slider, still the ability, the comfort, the past experience. I don't know. But right now, it's getting to that point where we're about ready to just compete and let the results dictate where we might be as far as this year goes.

Are you happy that you're getting to start here [with Indianapolis]?

Yeah, I was prepared to be out of the bullpen. When they set me up here, it was like, "Hey, we'll have you out of the 'pen," and then I was going to make a few starts with some doubleheaders. And now I'm going to make a start. For me, like I said, [it's] just getting the reps. It's sounds non-competitive when you say it, [but] I'm out there competing my tail off. I want to get as many guys out as I can. But I also have to reason with myself, and say, "Hey, this is part of you getting out there against some quality hitters, and making the adjustments and knowing what that increased effort level feels like." Remembering what it's like, so we can be more comfortable on the mound.