CLEVELAND: Danny Salazar figured he was bound to be back in the major leagues sometime during the second half of the season.
The right-handed rookie’s successful debut for the Indians on July 11 had all but guaranteed a return ticket.
But in taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays and finishing with a veteran-like one-run, seven-strikeout masterpiece victory, Salazar did more than prove he belongs in the bigs.
Armed with a fastball that tops out at 99 mph, a deceiving change-up in the mid-80s, a nasty breaking ball and a maturity that belies his 23 years, Salazar showed the Indians that he not only has the physical talent required of an ace in the making, but also the rare mental aptitude to handle the pressure.
The veteran-like manner in which Salazar went about handling his debut — followed by the subsequent five sterling minor- league starts that culminated in a 1.00 ERA — was all the Indians’ brass needed to see to believe their top prospect is ready for another challenge.
But a challenge as big as pitching against the division-leading Detroit Tigers in the third game of a four-game series in an August pennant race?
“Why not?” Salazar said with a wide grin and a shrug of his shoulders. “I know if I go out there and just keep my emotions in check and my ball down like the first time, I’ll do a good job.”
That kind of confidence is why Tribe officials really didn’t have to think all that hard about recalling Salazar to start in today’s pressure cooker against the Tigers.
The decision to go with Salazar meant struggling veteran Ubaldo Jimenez (1-2 with a 6.92 ERA in three starts against the Tigers this season) could be skipped in the rotation.
“Some of it is competitive, and it also gives us a chance to give [Jimenez] a little bit of a blow,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We thought that would help him. We also like the idea of resting him and at the same time, seeing what this kid can do.”
Salazar learned of his promotion Sunday while on a road trip with his Triple-A Columbus Clippers. In his last start two days earlier, Salazar had tossed five perfect innings against the Buffalo Bisons, striking out eight.
Still, when Clippers manager Chris Tremie called Salazar into his office to tell him of the promotion, Salazar had no idea it was coming.
“No one was hurt and all the starters had been doing a good job,” he said.
Once Salazar put two and two together and realized that his second major league start would come in such a pivotal game against the Tigers, “a big smile came to my face. I know that’s a big team, that it’s a big series.”
That moment frozen in time is such a long way away from when the Indians signed the skinny, 16-year-old in 2006 as a non-drafted free agent out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Four years later, he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery that halted his ascension to the major leagues. The toughest part of Salazar’s long road back to pitching?
“Patience,” he said. “Definitely patience. A year away from doing something I’d done for so long felt like forever.”
In hindsight, the injury may have been the blessing that’s boosted Salazar’s career. He not only came back stronger, but also after two seasons of limited and strict pitch counts, having learned how to really pitch.
About a half hour before Tuesday’s game, the Indians placed Monday’s starter Corey Kluber on the disabled list. Losing Kluber is a tough blow to the Tribe, as the right-hander’s consistency in the rotation has been one of the team’s biggest surprises of the season. But with Salazar already in town, there was no need for the Tribe brass to wring their hands over what to do next.
Reliever Matt Langwell was called up from Columbus to add depth to the bullpen and without saying a word about Salazar, he can slide right into the Tribe’s starting rotation for the foreseeable future.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com.