Right-hander can continue storybook season in must-win tilt against Rays
CLEVELAND -- Manager Terry Francona first got a glimpse of the kid when he made an offseason trip to the Dominican Republic. He and pitching coach Mickey Callaway had gone to Cleveland's academy on the island to meet with pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, but he was quickly blown away by the young pitcher playing catch with Jimenez.
"I went up to Mickey, and I was like, 'Who is that guy?'" Francona recalled.
"That guy" was Danny Salazar, who sat in front of a microphone at Progressive Field on Tuesday on the eve of the Indians' biggest game in several seasons. Salazar will start opposite Rays right-hander Alex Cobb in Wednesday's 8 p.m. ET American League Wild Card Game in Cleveland.
"That guy" says he isn't nervous.
"The mound is where I feel most comfortable, or calm," Salazar said. "I've been playing a lot of baseball -- not in the Majors, but it's kind of the same game."
Salazar could not have seen this coming. When the young right-hander took the mound at Canal Park in Akron, Ohio, for his first start of this season, staring down Double-A Binghamton's lineup, the path that led to this moment could not be foreseen.
But there he stood, leaning against a wall outside the visitors' clubhouse at Target Field on Sunday, while inside the corks popped, champagne flew and the Indians celebrated their clinching of the AL's top Wild Card spot. Francona and Callaway had already informed him that he was in line to start the Wild Card Game, but now that idea was a reality.
He is humbled by the honor.
"This is awesome," he said quietly. "The team has trust in me. I'm just going to do my best there. This is just a little bit of what's going to happen. This is the beginning of a new era. [That] was the last game of the season, and now we've got to keep going until the end."
The 23-year-old has logged only 10 starts for the Indians, but he has struck out batters at a rate of 11.25 per nine innings. That is the highest single-season rate in club history among pitchers with at least three starts. Another right-hander, Hall of Famer Bob Feller, ranks second on that list for his work for Cleveland in the 1936 campaign.
A statue honoring Feller stands outside Gate C at Progressive Field, where Salazar will take the mound come Wednesday.
Cleveland has not won a World Series since Feller's 1948 squad did so, and the Indians have not experienced the postseason since 2007. That fall the Tribe came one victory shy of reaching the Fall Classic after losing to the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series. This time around, the winner of the Wild Card Game will head to Boston for the AL Division Series.
Given the magnitude of the moment, sending Salazar to the mound could be viewed as a risk, but the Indians feel the phenom is up to the task.
"He's not a finished product," Francona said. "The finished product is going to be special, but he's comfortable on the mound. We wouldn't do it if we weren't comfortable."
Salazar ended the regular season with a 2-3 record, but he turned in a 3.12 ERA and finished with 65 strikeouts against 15 walks in 52 innings. In five September outings, he posted a 2.52 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 25 innings, while the Indians gradually allowed him to increase his pitch count.
Cleveland has treated him with kid gloves all season due to the Tommy John surgery he underwent back in 2010. The organization has slowly built up his innings over the past three years, limiting his pitch count throughout this season in both the Minors and Majors.
In his past two starts, however, Salazar did not face the same restrictions.
"That's very important," he said. "When I was on the pitch count, sometimes after every pitch I made, I was watching the scoreboard to see how many pitches I had. Now that I don't have the pitch count, I don't look, and I feel more confident."
Signed as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, Salazar put himself on the map as a top pitching prospect last summer and made his push for the big leagues this year. In 21 appearances between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, he went 6-5 with a 2.71 ERA, piling up 129 strikeouts and 23 walks in 93 innings.
Salazar made a spot start against the Blue Jays on July 11, and all he did was strike out seven while taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. In that outing, Tribe fans witnessed first-hand how he can hit triple digits on the radar gun with his fastball and how his biting slider and dancing split-changeup can keep hitters honest.
"He's a rookie throwing 100 mph," first baseman Nick Swisher said.
But that dominant fastball has led Salazar to lean on it too often at times. In his past two starts, he has mixed in more offspeed pitches, something he has been working on with Callaway.
Jimenez -- once a hard-throwing prospect himself -- has had many discussions with Salazar about how to best use his pitches.
"The stuff that he has is unbelievable," Jimenez said. "But I have told him that it doesn't matter how hard you throw. You have to locate your fastball, and you have to mix other pitches in if you want to be good."
Salazar has shown improvement in that regard, and he is gaining confidence as a result. That has helped him remain unfazed by the Major League stage.
Still, there's no way he could have predicted this.
Jimenez sealed the Tribe's place in the postseason on Sunday, and Salazar will look to keep the run going.
Who knew their round of catch back in the Dominican Republic was foreshadowing?
"He throws a ball that never gets about eight feet off the ground, and it goes about 400 feet," Callaway said. "Not too many people can do that. That's what makes it special."