CLEVELAND: Indians rookie right-hander Danny Salazar might 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 might 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. He 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 4⅓ innings, lifted after facing one batter in the fifth with the Tribe trailing 3-0.
The upstart Indians failed to deliver the big hit and were eliminated from the postseason 4-0, with the Rays advancing to the AL Division Series against the Boston Red Sox.
When the game began, the atmosphere was a delirious frenzy and the Tribe sending out a fearless fireballer only heightened the hysteria.
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 hit 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 Desmond Jennings’ two-run double to the left-field corner. He was lifted after walking Jose Molina in the fifth. Salazar allowed four hits, walked two and struck out four. Of his 67 pitchers, 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 postseason debut, Tribe manager Terry Francona surely won’t second-guess his decision to call on the youngster who began the season at the Double-A Akron Aeros. The burden fell more on the Tribe offense.
Francona could have played it safe and gone with Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber. But neither of them electrifies the crowd, electrifies the team like Salazar.
Salazar doesn’t just tax the limits of the radar gun. The mound is his comfort zone. He said he’s felt that way since he underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in August, 2010. With the demands of his rehabilitation, the diamond became his sanctuary.
After Salazar waded through the days of restricted pitch counts and made it to the majors, Francona marvels at Salazar’s poise.
“If I had stuff like him I’d be poised, too. There’s a difference between being able to throw 100 and pitching and getting major-league hitters out and Danny can do that,” Francona said Tuesday.
The Indians envision Salazar as a pitcher they can build a team around.
Even when James was talking about “lighting up the city like Las Vegas,” he referred to disappointments like The Drive and The Fumble. For those like James who grew up in Northeast Ohio, the burden to deliver a title to a city that hasn’t won a major championship since the Browns in 1964 can become a burden.
“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, in a good way. Salazar’s historical ignorance could have freed him.
“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 postseason. “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 as daunting with Salazar on the mound.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.