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CLEVELAND — Justin Masterson has simply been doing what he’s been told.
So far, the results have made him unbeatable.
“I told him, ‘Throw that little white thing over that larger white thing as much as you can,’” Cleveland pitching coach Tim Belcher said. “If he does that, his stuff is so sick. If he throws strikes over the plate, he’s going to give us a chance to win.”
Masterson pitched seven strong innings for his third straight win, Asdrubal Cabrera had four RBIs, and the surprising Cleveland Indians kept the AL Central standings flipped upside down with an 8-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles Friday night.
Masterson (3-0), who allowed just one run and four singles, went 6-13 last season. He didn’t get his third win until July 1 — in his 16th start.
“I saw that on the bottom of the TV,” Masterson said, glancing at a nearby screen. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a long time.’ ”
Travis Hafner homered for Cleveland, which entered the series tied for first with Kansas City. Last season, the Indians finished fourth in the division, two games ahead of the last-place Royals.
Cabrera’s two-run single highlighted Cleveland’s four-run third inning off rookie Zach Britton (2-1), who gave up five runs and eight hits in six innings. Six of those hits came in a row during the third when the Indians got a triple and five consecutive singles.
“One inning was the difference,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, “but I was proud of the way he responded. He came back, battled, pitched well.”
The Orioles have lost five straight since a 6-1 start.
At 9-4, Cleveland is off to its best start since 2002.
“This is fun,” Masterson said.
After struggling for most of 2010, Masterson began to show signs of becoming a dependable starter in the final two months. The 6-foot-6 right-hander has carried that over into this season with three solid starts and wins over Chicago, Seattle, and now Baltimore.
Masterson, who got 12 of his 21 outs on grounders, credits slight changes with his mechanics. Also an emphasis on throwing his first pitch over the plate. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of 26 hitters.
“Throwing that first pitch in there allows you to expand the zone a little, which is great with the stuff that I have,” he said. “It’s been very simple, subtle stuff, but I’ve done it enough to just go out and pitch and gain confidence with what I have.”
The Indians were hoping to build on a 4-2 trip to Seattle and Los Angeles, and they’re off to a good start by winning their fifth straight at home.
Cabrera added another two-run single in the seventh, when Cleveland blew it open against Baltimore’s bullpen.
Britton won his first two starts. Showalter said the 23-year-old displayed something special in spring training before even throwing a pitch.
“You could see it in his eyes,” Showalter said. “He’s not too cool for school, but his first thoughts are always ‘What have I got to do to stay here?’ He’s grounded and puts the team first.”
Britton’s sinker ran away from Cleveland’s hitters in the first two innings, but the bottom of the order figured out how to hit him in the third, when the Indians opened a 4-0 lead with six consecutive hits and a sacrifice fly.
“It was a little disappointing there,” Britton said. “The pitches were down, but getting too much of the plate.”
Matt LaPorta, not exactly known for his speed on the basepaths, stretched what looked like a double off the left-field wall into a leadoff triple. Lou Marson, starting in place of slumping catcher Carlos Santana, followed with an RBI single, and two more singles loaded the bases before Cabrera grounded a two-run single to center. Hafner’s sacrifice fly made it 4-0, and Britton only avoided more damage when the Orioles successfully appealed that Cabrera left second too early.