'Underrated' Masset is key piece for Reds

'Underrated' Masset is key piece for Reds

'Underrated' Masset is key piece for Reds
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- In the far back corner of the Reds' spring clubhouse, where Nick Masset's locker resides, the reliever seemed a little surprised on Thursday when a reporter made his way over to speak with him.

Masset said it was the first interview he was asked to give since camp started. Such is the relatively anonymous life of a successful late-inning setup man.

"We're underrated, plain and simple. Let's be honest," Masset said with a laugh.

As far as the Reds were concerned last season, Masset's contribution couldn't go unappreciated. While he posted a 3.40 ERA, his career-high 82 appearances led the staff and ranked him third among National League pitchers.

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The 28-year-old Masset also set career marks in strikeouts, with 85, and innings, with 76 2/3. Of his 32 inherited base runners, 23 were stranded.

"You're not getting attention, it means you're doing your job," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "If you go cold for an extended period of time ... it appears that you are terrible. Then they start hollering 'get him out of there and don't put him back in there again.'"

There was a time very early last season when Masset was in the crosshairs for irritated fans.

On Opening Day last season against the Cardinals, Masset allowed a five-run eighth inning that included a grand slam by Yadier Molina. Through 12 games in April, Masset's ERA was 11.32. Reliever ERAs can often be deceiving, but there was no denying that he struggled early on.

It was a long haul to whittle that down by nearly eight runs. Like Baker did with several position players going through hard times at points in the season, he never wavered in his support of Masset -- both publicly and behind the scenes. The manager met with the reliever and made efforts to boost his confidence.

"He did great," Baker said. "At some point in time, you have to commit to something or someone, or else you're just wishy-washy back and forth and [playing] whoever is hot, and you lose everybody. The year before, Masset was unbelievable. You don't have the same year all the time for whatever reason. When I talked to hitters in the league, almost every one of them said Masset was the nastiest guy they could face. It means a lot to me and not to me, it's how to convey to him how nasty he is."

Masset had a 1.29 ERA over his last 48 appearances of the season.

"Since it was so ugly early on, because I gave up so many runs, I think it was just two or three games that exploded," Masset said. "It happens, but my focus was to go out there, throw scoreless innings and get hitters out early. I mainly wanted to keep my team in the game, whether we were winning or losing. I told Dusty I was feeling good. Keep going with me. I just wanted to get out there and prove I could get the job done. If my numbers are better, it means the team's numbers are better."

Masset's breakout season came in 2009, during his first full year with the Reds, when he was 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA in 74 games. He was acquired on July 31, 2008, in a trade that sent Ken Griffey Jr. to the White Sox.

This spring, Masset has a 5.06 ERA in five games -- mostly because of three earned runs allowed in one-third of an inning in his first game. Although he walked two on Thursday against the Indians, it was still good for his fourth consecutive scoreless outing.

Dependability has more often come for Masset when he can induce ground balls and double plays. Last season, his strikeout total was 15 higher than in '09. His fly ball total increased slightly as well. He had a 1.74 ground-ball-to-fly ball ratio in 2009 and it was 1.46 in 2010.

Masset is capable of bringing the heat with fastballs around 97-98 mph but has been more successful when taking a little bit off to keep his sinker down for grounders. He induced seven double plays on the ground last season, after having 11 in '09.

"Everyone likes punchouts but if I can get two outs with one pitch, I will take that every day," Masset said.

And if he gets that every day and has success, Masset realizes few outside of the team will take notice.

"If I'm not, you guys are crowding me," Masset said. "That's fine. You take the good with the bad."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.