ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Justin Masterson is so relentlessly optimistic, he can make a rehab assignment to the minor leagues sound like an all-expense-paid trip to Club Med.
“It’s nice to pitch again in ‘The Show,’" Masterson said Sunday after making a successful return to the Boston Red Sox in Sunday’s 5-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays. “But it was fun to go to the bushes, hang out with some of the guys down there."
And what exactly, he was asked, did he mean by "fun in the bushes?" Masterson’s answer alluded to the time-honored tradition of a big-leaguer sent down for rehab to treat his minor-league teammates to some major-league dining after a game.
“Probably getting worn out by [Pawtucket catcher Humberto] Quintero,’’ Masterson said. “The first time the spread was pizza and wings, not on purpose. The second time, I had to get ‘em Capital Grille.
“Good people down there. It’s nice and relaxing, it brings a little joy when you’re struggling to get back into it.’’
Elation was still the operative word Sunday, after Masterson, pitching for the Sox for the first time since May 12 after being shut down with shoulder tendinitis, held the Rays to an unearned run on five singles in five innings distinguished by six strikeouts and no walks.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox hit three home runs in the first four innings off Tampa Bay ace Chris Archer, who had not given up three home runs in any of his previous 75 starts but was taken deep by Pablo Sandoval and Alejandro De Aza in the second, and David Ortiz in the fourth.
Once upon a time, Masterson threw almost as hard as Archer does, mixing in the sweeping slider. Did he see the resemblance?
“I mean, he’s a little bit smaller, with a little more hair,’’ said the 6-foot-6 right-hander with the shaven head. “But he’s doing great. He’s a way better pitcher than I have ever been. Kind of watched him, see 96 [miles an hour], and think, ‘Hey, it would be great to have that.’ Then he gives up a home run, and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe 90, 91 is good.'"
For the record, Sandoval and De Aza both homered off Archer’s changeup, his third-best pitch, while Ortiz connected with a slider, but Archer’s usual fastball-power slider mix produced 10 strikeouts.
The radar guns can now take the day off when Masterson pitches. Sunday, he averaged 87 mph with his fastball, which ranged from a slow of 83 to a high of 91. But his return centered on his determination to show that with good location and an effective slider, he can still be effective.
Mission accomplished Sunday. Lots of first-pitch strikes (13 of 20), ground balls (8, 5 for outs), swings and misses (11, 8 on his slider). Of the 84 pitches he threw Sunday, 54 were for strikes, the majority down in the zone.
“It all comes down to being able to throw strikes,’’ he said. “I humped up on a few. Whether the gun says high readings, by being behind the baseball, you could see a few bore in on some guys. That’s what makes me ‘me,’ whether it’s hard or not. I had a really good slider, good movement on the ball in general. I was able to throw strikes and keep them off-balance.’’
One five-inning start is not going to put to rest all the doubts about whether Masterson, an all-star in 2013 with Cleveland but a shell of himself since a series of injuries that included a strained oblique muscle that affected his shoulder, can be effective going forward, or even healthy for any length of time. In seven starts before he went on the DL, Masterson had a 6.37 ERA, and had failed to last five innings three times.
“There was a little soreness in the shoulder -- it kind of crept in,’’ Masterson said of his May trip to the DL. “I don’t know the totality of it. But I don’t think I was totally locked in mechanically really, until the last couple of weeks, when the wheels turned.
“Hopefully, that’s something that will continue. That’s the true test. I’m going to give up my hits, but it’s about being consistent, keeping us in the game, and going deep in the game.’’