Tribe tabs rookie Salazar for Wild Card Game
Right-hander can continue storybook season in must-win tilt against Rays
MINNEAPOLIS -- Danny Salazar could not have seen this coming. When he took the mound at Canal Park for his first start of this season, staring down Double-A Binghamton's lineup, the young right-hander could not have foreseen the path that led to this moment.
There Salazar stood, leaning against a wall outside the visitors' clubhouse at Target Field, while inside the corks popped, champagne flew and the Indians celebrated their clinching of the American League's top Wild Card spot. As the party raged on after the Tribe's 5-1 win over the Twins on Sunday, Salazar was named the starter for Wednesday's Wild Card Game in Cleveland.
The rookie was humbled by the honor.
"This is awesome," Salazar 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. This was the last game of the season and now we've got to keep going until the end."
The Indians now know that they'll be facing the Rays, who wrapped up the 162-game schedule knotted with the Rangers for the second AL Wild Card position but won, 5-2, at Texas on Monday night. Tampa Bay will head to Cleveland for Wednesday's Wild Card Game, airing on TBS with the first pitch scheduled for 8:07 p.m. ET.
Before the tiebreaker, Salazar said the opponent would not matter to him, and you tend to believe him given his storybook season.
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 Indians 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.
Feller has a statue outside Gate C at Progressive Field, where Salazar will be on the mound come Wednesday.
Cleveland has not won a World Series since Feller's 1948 squad and the Indians had not previously 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," Indians manager Terry 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 the right-hander turned in a 3.12 ERA and finished with 65 strikeouts against 15 walks in 52 innings. In five September outings, Salazar 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 Salazar with kid gloves all season due to the Tommy John surgery he underwent back in 2010. The organization has slowly built the pitcher's innings up over the past three years, limiting his pitch count throughout this season both in the Minors and Majors.
In his past two starts, however, Salazar has not faced the same restrictions.
"That's very important," Salazar 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, Salazar went 6-5 with a 2.71 ERA, piling up 129 strikeouts and 23 walks in 93 innings along the way.
On July 11, Salazar made a spot start for the Indians against the Blue Jays, 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 Salazar 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," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said.
That dominant fastball has led Salazar to lean on it too often at times, though. In his past two starts, the right-hander has mixed in more offspeed pitches, which is something he has been working on with pitching coach Mickey Callaway.
Fellow Indians starter Ubaldo Jimenez -- once a hard-throwing prospect himself -- said he 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.
Francona has often said that Salazar seems to be more comfortable out on a mound than anywhere else. Told of his manager's assessment, the young pitcher smiled and gave a slight nod.
"I do," Salazar said. "Once I stepped on the mound [in my big league debut], I felt like, 'This is a normal game for me.' It was the Majors, but it was the same. I was throwing for seven years before I got up here. So it was the same for me."
Still, Salazar could not have seen this coming.
Back in Spring Training, when Salazar was preparing to head to Double-A to open this season, no one could have predicted the Indians' postseason fate would rest in his right hand.
"I wouldn't have thought it would happen," Callaway said with a grin, "giving the ball to Danny."