CLEVELAND: Danny Salazar said his major-league debut was such a big deal, a celebration of the first player to make it from his hometown of Cabrera in the Dominican Republic, that everyone watched the game together at a party in a park.
Thursday’s joy will have to last them for a while.
The Indians have no place for Salazar in the starting rotation unless disaster strikes.
The 23-year-old who is fully recovered after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in August 2010 couldn’t have been more spectacular unless he’d been lifted during a no-hitter. And that nearly happened. The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t get to the right-hander with the 100 mph fastball until Salazar’s 80th pitch, which catcher Josh Thole singled to left.
Picking up the victory as the Tribe prevailed 4-2, Salazar allowed two hits, walked one and struck out seven, the most by an Indian in his major-league debut since Luis Tiant fanned 11 in 1964. Dating back to 1916, only 17 pitchers in his situation have done what Salazar did — strike out at least seven, allow no more than two hits and no more than one earned run.
That wasn’t Wednesday’s rain dripping from Progressive Field’s roof; it was hope for the future. Salazar’s numbers in his six innings were enough to make the Indians’ front office dream big. He hit 99 mph on the scoreboard radar board on a fourth-inning offering to Jose Bautista.
But Tribe executives dreamed only for a day.
The Indians are set with their top five — Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir and Zach McAllister, slated to return from the disabled list after the All-Star break. Should Brett Myers, earning $7 million on a one-year contract, come back from right elbow tendinitis, he’ll be headed to the bullpen.
“I’m sure everybody wants to see him again really soon,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said of Salazar. “But if we see him again, that means somebody got hurt or is not doing well. We’ll wait for the good opportunity for him to get up here.”
Waiting may be painful.
Indians manager Terry Francona told Salazar when he arrived Wednesday from Class AAA Columbus that how he pitched in his spot start wouldn’t affect how the Tribe felt about him. But Francona made it clear Salazar was headed back to Columbus and Salazar seemed to accept his fate.
“It’s their decision,” Salazar said. “I came here and did a good job. I know they’re going to call for me in the future. I don’t have to worry about that.”
Asked if he had a timetable for when he wanted to return, he said, “Whatever they want, it’s not on me.”
There is so much about Salazar that dazzles the Indians. The fastball that Indians vice president of player development Ross Atkins said has gained 2 to 3 mph since his surgery and doesn’t seem the result of overthrowing. An above-average split changeup. A slider. His poise. His seven years with the Indians since signing as an undrafted free agent on July 2, 2006 — the date Salazar readily gave.
The way he fields his position and holds runners on base, which Atkins said is usually the last thing young pitchers master.
Of course, after setting the bar so high, Salazar must prove he can do it again. Regularly.
When Francona saw Salazar throwing a bullpen session at the Indians’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic over the winter, he said he thought: This guy’s a major-league pitcher. He’s just got to get some innings and get away from the Tommy John and build up strength.
“That can be what he is,” Francona said. “This kid’s got special stuff.”
The Indians must resist the temptation to rush Salazar.
“There’s always that natural tendency for somebody who’s that talented and striking out 12 guys per nine [innings],” Atkins said. “You do have to be disciplined about it.”
Next year, however, discipline may be out the window.
Jimenez and Myers won’t be back. Josh Tomlin will, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2012. They might want to keep Kazmir, now pitching on a one-year deal. The Indians will also have Masterson, Kluber, McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, the unorthodox Trevor Bauer and Salazar. If Kazmir re-signs, that’s eight men for five spots.
This year at spring training, the starting pitching staff may have felt comfortable, with Carrasco and Kazmir battling for the lone open job. There will be no such comfort level next year in Goodyear.
On Thursday, Salazar served notice to the rest of the Tribe’s top minor-leaguers. Even if they step it up, they might get passed over. In the afterglow of Salazar’s debut, scenarios like Bauer vs. Salazar or Salazar vs. Carrasco appear to be no contest.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the 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.