In April of this season, 95% of Indians fans had no idea who Danny Salazar was.
By May, he was starting to make some waves in AA Akron, making seven starts and posting an ERA of 2.67 with 51 strikeouts in 33.2 innings pitched.
In June, he was a rotation mainstay in Columbus, making starts mostly of the five inning variety, by design after his Tommy John surgery two years ago. Again, Salazar shined with a 2.73 ERA an 0.98 WHIP and 78 K’s in 59.1 innings of work.
While all of this was going on, the watchful eyes of GM Chris Antonetti, Player Development director Ross Atkins, Columbus pitching coach Tony Arnold, and Indians pitching coach Mickey Calloway saw that something special was brewing.
On July 11th, the Indians were in need of a spot starter. The guy who should have getting the call, Trevor Bauer, was in the midst of a delivery overhaul and was not an option. Carlos Carrasco was shipped back out after being just been lit up like a Christmas Tree five days earlier. So the Tribe brass decided to roll the dice, handing the ball to the 23 year old kid from the Dominican Republic.
I was in attendance that day. Here is a brief portion of what I wrote about Salazar’s debut.
Nobody knew what to expect from the kid, but man did he look the part. Right from the start, Salazar was impressive. He struck out four of the first six Blue Jays he faced, showing no signs of being overwhelmed by the moment. Mixing in a 97 MPH fastball that got up to 99 with a wicked breaking pitch, Salazar completely dominated the Blue Jays. If not for Lonnie Chisenhall losing a pop fly in the sun and then the subsequent walk to Rajai Davis, Danny would have been perfect through five innings.
He made quite the first impression and we all knew on that day, Salazar would be heard from again. The next time his number was called from Columbus, it was for good. With the first place Detroit Tigers coming to town for a big series in August and the Indians hot on their tails, the decision was made to throw Salazar and hope he would stem the tide against the Motor City Kitties. It was a smart, calculated decision to face the team that had owned them all season. Danny did his part and then some. For seven innings, Salazar was dominant again, striking out 10 Tigers with his power stuff while scattering five hits. With a 3-2 lead a man on and two out, the Tribe’s nemesis Miguel Cabrera, stepped to the plate. Salazar had already K’d Miggy three times. Manager Terry Francona decided to stick with his rookie. But the real life Clu Haywood took Salazar deep in a moment that Tribe fans won’t ever forget.
Regardless of what happened against Cabrera, it was clear that the Indians had something really big on their hands. Said Tigers manager Jim Leyland after the game: ”That kid was really something special. It’s not very often that I’m in the dugout saying, holy crap. But tonight, that was impressive. Man, he was throwing easy 98, 99, easy. That was pretty nasty.”
With injuries to both Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, Salazar stayed in the rotation the rest of the way. He’s made 10 starts total and for the majority of them, he was held on a strict pitch limit, somewhere between 75-80 pitches. But over the last two starts, the reigns were taken off. He made five starts in September and allowed just seven earned runs in 25 innings (2.52 ERA) while striking out 33 batters.
Now with the season on the line in October, Francona, Calloway, and Antonetti have decided that Salazar is the man to take the ball in the winner take all Wild Card game Wednesday.
“He’s not a finished product,” said Francona. “The finished product is going to be special. But, he’s comfortable on the mound and we wouldn’t (put him out there) if we weren’t comfortable.”
Calloway had his own reasons for wanting Salazar to pitch Wednesday.
“That Detroit game said it all,” he said.
The role of Salazar on this club is reminiscent of 1997. On June 24th of 1997, the Indians needed a spot start and called for their 21-year old 1st round pick from California. Yes, he was a tad on the wild side, but he had that power arm that tantalized. He would make 16 starts the rest of the way and went 8-3 with a 4.40 ERA. People think that like Salazar, Wright was a strikeout machine right from the jump. However, he K’d just 63 in 90 innings pitched while walking 35.
But come October when the Indians needed it, he was there. He won both starts, including game five, in the ALDS against the Yankees. In the World Series, manager Mike Hargrove chose him to start game seven over veteran Charles Nagy. Had Jose Mesa not blown the save, he would have been the winning pitcher. Wright went six and a third, allowing just one run. He struck out seven and walked five.
So yes, while the stories are similar – Salazar and Wright were two out of nowhere, hard-throwing kids who came up, became popular, and have been called on in the biggest spots in October - Salazar is the far superior pitcher. Time has done Jaret Wright’s 1997 season plenty of good.
So now it is up to Salazar to follow Wright’s lead and win his first playoff start. Unlike Jaret’s ALDS opener, Danny’s start is a win or go home situation.
“This is awesome,” said Salazar. “The team trusts me and that gives me confidence.”
You can bet he will be more than ready for the task.
(photo via Scott Shaw/PD)