CLEVELAND: Indians rookie right-hander Danny Salazar may know fellow Dominican pitcher Jose Mesa.
But he’s probably never heard of The Drive, The Fumble or The Shot. The Decision might even be pushing it, although the 23-year-old is surely familiar with LeBron James.
As he stepped onto the biggest stage of his life Wednesday night as the Tribe’s starter against the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Wild Card Game at Progressive Field, Salazar’s ignorance may have been bliss.
Yes, there was pressure, but not the pressure of the city’s 49-year championship drought.
The fever pitch of the moment – with fans standing and screaming on two-strike counts in the first inning as if it were the ninth -- didn’t affect Salazar. The kid who started the season at Double-A Akron showed all his promise, all his talent, especially in the first two innings.
It seemed as if the sellout crowd of 43,579 was peeking into the future, when he could be the ace of the Tribe staff. Salazar twice hit 100 mph, a velocity he reached only five times in 10 regular-season starts, according to ESPN.
But Salazar lasted just 41/3 innings, lifted after facing one batter in the fifth with the Tribe trailing 3-0.
The Indians failed to deliver the big hit and were eliminated from the post-season 4-0, with the Rays advancing to the AL Division Series against the Boston Red Sox.
But even as he took the loss, Salazar did nothing to diminish how the Indians feel about his future. In fact, he raised expectations.
“I think it probably stepped it up a little bit,” Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway said after the game. “The way he handled the moment and how relaxed he was and the way he pounded the zone, throwing strikes. He did a tremendous job.
“He was very relaxed. The game never sped up on him. He went out there and made them beat him.”
Indians manager Terry Francona felt the same way about Salazar’s poise in the spotlight.
“He’s going to be a special pitcher,” Francona said.
Designated hitter Jason Giambi liked what he saw of Salazar against the Rays and during the season, when Salazar went 2-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts.
As for Salazar’s future, Giambi said, “Huge. He’s got unbelievable stuff. He’s still learning, he wants to learn, he’s just going to keep getting better and better.”
When the game began, the atmosphere was a delirious frenzy and the Indians sending out a fearless fireballer only heightened the hysteria.
Salazar admitted he was full of adrenalin. After David DeJesus sent a deep fly to center field leading off the first, Salazar struck out Wil Myers and James Loney, the latter with a 100 mph sizzler. He threw 10 pitches, eight for strikes. After two innings his total was 20 pitches, 16 for strikes, with another triple-digit offering.
He made his first mistake to Delmon Young to lead off the third inning and Young sent it 414 feet into the left field bleachers for a home run. But instead of letting it fluster him, Salazar came back to retire three in a row.
Then Salazar began to labor. He gave up two more runs in the fourth on three hits, including what Callaway called Salazar’s biggest mistake -- Desmond Jennings’ two-run double to the left field corner. His night was nearly done. Salazar allowed four hits, walked two and struck out four. Of his 67 pitches, he threw 42 strikes.
Although he took the loss, Salazar was not awed by the magnitude of his task. He kept his team within striking distance.
While Salazar wasn’t as effective as the Rays’ Alex Cobb in his post-season debut, Francona didn’t second-guess his decision to start Salazar over Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber. Neither of them electrifies the crowd, electrifies his team like Salazar.
Salazar knew he wasn’t expected to make such a storybook leap from the Aeros to the Wild Card Game.
“Not really. Since spring training they told me they wanted to call me up in September. I just had it in my mind to do a good job where I am and try to get here before that,” Salazar said after the game. “I accomplished that goal. Now, I have to keep working.”
Starter Justin Masterson said Salazar’s 100 mph velocity coupled with decent control excites him. He is anxious to see what Salazar can do when he will be nearly four years removed from reconstructive elbow surgery in August, 2010.
“He did a tremendous job. A couple balls were close here and there,” Masterson said of Salazar’s effort against the Rays. “He’s going to be a big part of this team next year and he kind of proved that this year. Hopefully he won’t be having those pitching counts and all that stuff when he’s four years out of Tommy John. You’d think he just had it.”
The Indians envision Salazar as a pitcher they can build a team around. As that process began in earnest against the Rays, Salazar’s unfamiliarity with Cleveland’s heartbreaking sports history could have helped.
Even when James was talking about “lighting up the city like Las Vegas” when he played for the Cavs, he referred to disappointments like The Drive and The Fumble. For those like James who grew up in Northeast Ohio, there is a burden to deliver a title to a city that hasn’t won a major championship since the Browns in 1964.
“I don’t think it’s going to have anything to do with it, whether he knows the streets of Cleveland or who played here 40 years ago … Whether the Browns lost 30 years ago, that’s not going to affect the outcome of the game,” Francona said of Salazar Tuesday.
But it could have in a sense. Salazar’s historical ignorance could have freed him. Perhaps it can continue to.
“For a lot of guys in here this is kind of unchartered territory and I think that’s almost a great thing,” first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher said Tuesday. On the Tribe’s 25-man roster, 13 had never appeared in the post-season. “We’re focused on winning a baseball game, regardless of what it stands for.”
To the rabid throng at Progressive Field that had been starved for playoff baseball since 2007, it stood for more. But even as the overachieving Indians’ dream ended, the curses of Cleveland’s sports past didn’t seem so daunting with Salazar on the mound.