By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
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CLEVELAND: For two hours Wednesday night, Danny Salazar made 20,169 fans at Progressive Field forget about the Indians’ travails with the Detroit Tigers and their uphill battle to win the American League Central Division.
In two major-league starts, Salazar has become the Sam McDowell of the 21st century, a kid who throws lightning bolts and makes All-Stars look like they got called up from rookie league.
Once Salazar left, the fans turned their attention back to business, that is, the task of catching the Tigers.
The game turned into a grinding struggle for 14 innings, with the Tigers finally prevailing 6-5.
Austin Jackson led off the 14th with a double off Bryan Shaw, the Tribe’s fifth reliever of the game, who was beginning his third inning on the mound.
Torii Hunter lined out to right field, and Jackson moved to third after the catch. Hernan Perez followed by drawing a walk, and manager Terry Francona responded by going to his bullpen for left-handed matchup specialist Marc Rzepczynski.
The move was made to neutralize left-handed hitting Prince Fielder, but Fielder lined a double to left-center to score Jackson and Perez with the game-winning runs.
“My job is to come in and get Fielder out,” Rzepczynski said. “I had him 0-and-2. He’s seen me a lot and he knew a slider was coming. If I could undo it, I would throw a fastball, but you can’t undo it.”
After the Tigers’ rally, the Indians answered but still came up short. With two outs and nobody on against closer Joaquin Benoit, Mike Aviles singled and Michael Bourn doubled him to the plate.
With a chance to sweep the four-game set tonight, Tigers lifted their Central Division lead to six games over the Tribe, which has won just three of 14 against Detroit this season.
Salazar turned in one of the more electrifying performances by a rookie starter in years, despite being charged with four runs. And he deserved better.
Salazar started the eighth inning with the Tribe in front 3-2 and retired the first two batters of the inning, including Jackson on a strikeout. But Hunter singled to bring up Miguel Cabrera, arguably the best hitter in the game.
Cabrera looked anything but dominating to that point. Salazar struck him out three times, once on a 99-mph fastball and one on a heater that reached 100 mph.
So why not leave Salazar in to face a guy — even last year’s American League MVP— whom he had manhandled three consecutive times? Because Cabrera is no dummy. He obviously had used to those three at-bats to go to school on Salazar.
On the first pitch, Cabrera sent a soaring drive over the wall in center for his 33rd home run of the season, lifting his RBI total to 102. He also gave the Tigers a 4-3 advantage.
“I threw a fastball before, so I tried it again, and it was down the middle,” Salazar said. “If you throw it outside or inside to him, it doesn’t matter, because he’s a great hitter. But I was trying to throw outside.”
Francona often says that once a pitcher reaches 90-100 pitches and opposing hitters have seen him three times, they become much more dangerous. This time he did not follow his own convictions.
“I would have had a hard time justifying taking him out,” he said. “I didn’t think there was any drop off in his stuff.”
The home run helped the Tribe in one respect: Once the Tigers had the lead, Cabrera was removed from the game for defense and could not deliver any lethal blows at the plate.
Salazar gave up seven hits, including a solo homer to Jackson, and one walk, striking out 10.
In his major-league debut against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 11, he threw a no-hitter for five innings, beating the Blue Jays 4-2, giving up one run and two hits in six innings.
But Cabrera’s homer did not sink the Tribe, which rallied for a run in the eighth to tie the score. Brantley led off with a double and held at third to see whether Carlos Santana’s line drive double would be caught. One out later, Yan Gomes drove in the run with a ground out to short.
As in the first two games of the series, the Tribe did little to frighten the Tigers. In six innings, Doug Fister allowed two runs, seven hits and two walks, striking out eight.
“There were a lot of good things that happened,” Francona said. “But against a team like this, you have to execute, and we left some runs out there.”
Gomes led off the third with a home run over the wall in left to put the Indians on the board, and the rally didn’t end until Nick Swisher doubled to drive in Bourn, who reached on a walk.
When Al Alburquerque relieved Fister to start the seventh, the Tribe went to work, taking the lead on a double by Aviles and an RBI double by Swisher, but the lead did not last long.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.