It seems longer ago, but all it took was a mid-July afternoon on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. I sat next to TD, roughly thirty yards from the pitchers mound housed within Progressive Field, as Danny Salazar made his Major League debut. I had planned to only stay for a few innings, spending what would otherwise be my lunch hour taking in some Tribe baseball. We didn’t know what to totally expect, but all it would take was a smattering of 99-mile-per-hour fastballs mixed with off-speed stuff some 20 miles-per-hour slower and it was over: The legend was being penned.
Salazar retired batter after batter, not allowing a hit until the sixth inning. Jose Reyes was Salazar’s first victim. In the second inning, Salazar struck out the side. In the third, Edwin Encarnacion, one of the league’s leaders in home runs, would be just just another notch on the baseball belt. Needless to say, that lunch hour became lunch hours as there would be no way I could miss potential history. But even after Salazar was lifted after the sixth inning—the subject of what would be a frustrating, season-long pitch limit—we were hooked.
Fast forward to Tuesday night and the story has seen a few unfortunate chapters. That pinpoint accuracy (Salazar threw 72 percent of his pitches for strikes during his debut) has lessened, the ability to corral that high-90s fastball seemingly failing him at times. He’s fallen victim to the home run ball a bit more often than preferred and his walk rate has jumped considerably to nearly four walks per nine innings. All of these factors earned the 24-year-old, the one who started the team’s postseason game just nine months earlier, a trip to Columbus where he could attempt to harness The Legend in Triple-A. One of the season’s brightest prospects, Salazar came into a late-July contest against the Minnesota Twins looking for what would be just his second win of the season, his first start since May 15 when he pitched against, poetically, the Toronto Blue Jays.
What would follow would best be described as a mix of two Salazars as the Indians would eventually win with a final score of 8-2. In the first inning, the flame-throwing fan favorite came out swinging, fanning Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe with a 96-mile-per-hour heater.
In the second inning, however, after embarrassing Josh Willingham with an 88-mile-per-hour slider, Salazar would walk the bases loaded, his fastball hitting the high-90s, but crashing into Yan Gomes’ glove well off of the plate. Free passes were given to Kurt Suzuki, Oswaldo Arcia and Eduardo Escobar, Salazar’s pitch count getting the Matt Underwood treatment just a few minutes into the evening. The kid would not be fazed, however, proceeding to strike out the next two batters—both on mid-80s off-speed stuff— fanning the side and promptly pulling of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide of innings.
“He told me to breathe and focus,” said Salazar of Gomes. “He told me to focus on the pitch I want to throw and not on the next one. He told me to go pitch by pitch.
“That was good. I wouldn’t go back and rest for a couple of seconds. That helps a lot. He wanted me to change my tempo because I was too quick.”
Salazar would settle in, mixing his mid-90s fastball (Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier watched a few of them go by) with sliders and that brutal change-up. He would fan a few more and even record a 1-2-3 fifth inning before being yanked, but that 31-pitch second inning would force Tribe skipper Terry Francona to go to the bullpen from the sixth inning on. The end result: Five innings, six strikeouts, three walks and one run—a mistake to Dozier—on six hits. After the second inning, all five Twin hits were singles. He consistently challenged hitters, was consistently in that 94-to-97-mile-pe-hour range with his fastball, and was not afraid to utilize his off-speed pitches. Francona referred to the outing a “shot in the arm” for a team that has little in the way of a safety net for their starting rotation over the course of the second half of the season.
Sure, ignoring Salazar’s second inning walks—but still considering the strikeouts—is the modern-day baseball equivalent of Butch Davis justifying Jamal Lewis’ 295-yard day against his defense. Former Browns head coaches aside, it’s easy to see how fans can still cling to Salazar’s potential. He’s young, he throws with ease and his ability to miss bats is among the best Tribe fans have seen in a very long time. These next few outings will be crucial for not only his second half, but the team’s as well—they can ill-afford to gamble if they plan to repeat last season’s magic.
• Carlos Sanatana and Nick Swisher combined to go 7-for-9. Sanatana was a base shy of the cycle, notching a double in the ninth inning having already amassed a double, single and home run. The home run was extra fun as the switch-hitter bunted his way aboard during his previous at-bat, beating the shift and drawing the ire of Twins starter Yohan Pino.
• The last Indians batter to have a game with at least four hits with at least one being a homer and one being a bunt hit was Kenny Lofton on September 3, 2000 against the Orioles. Lofton went 4-for-7 in that game that lasted 13 innings. (Elias)
• While we’re talking Santana and bunting, this is an issue that’s bound to arise more and more as the season wears on. Pitchers are apparently taking offense to players bunting their way aboard while the defense is in a left-handed shift. I get unwritten rules, but this one is absurd. In a close game, in the middle innings, if the defense wants to get crafty, the batter has every right to do the same. What’s next? Drawing the outfield in and then throwing a fit if the batter hits it over their heads? Come on.