By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: Danny Salazar is a rookie as far as his major-league service time is concerned, but the young right-hander’s status won’t stop the Indians from sending him to the mound tonight in the American League wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Rays in front of a sellout crowd at Progressive Field.
It is a win-or-go-home game, but the trust the Indians have in Salazar cannot be overstated. From General Manager Chris Antonetti to manager Terry Francona and on down to his veteran teammates, the theme heading into tonight’s game is a unified one: In Danny We Trust.
“Danny has done nothing since the day he arrived to make us feel like he can’t win a game like this for us,” Francona said.
Even when the Indians had the opportunity before Sunday’s clincher to adjust the rotation and slot the starter of choice into tonight’s lineup (including veteran Ubaldo Jimenez), they held firm with plans to give Salazar the team’s biggest start since 2007.
Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia started the last time the Indians faced a game this big — Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in 2007 — with the Indians just one win away from a World Series berth.
Sabathia allowed four runs on 10 hits in six sub-par innings, opening the gate for the Francona-led Boston Red Sox to come back from the brink of elimination and ride the momentum to a World Series title.
With that in mind, what makes the Indians believe a 23-year old right-hander who’ll be making just his 11th big-league start is up for the challenge? The better question might be why wouldn’t he be?
After starting the season as the ace of the Double-A Aeros, Salazar quickly made his way up the minor-league ladder. On July 27, he made his big-league debut against the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. He struck out seven and took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of a 4-2 victory.
“He believes that he belongs here,” Tribe catcher Yan Gomes said. “You saw it from his first outing. We’re excited, especially a young kid doing it. The future he’s got ahead of him is going to be huge.”
The story is even more improbable considering Salazar nearly missed the then-biggest start of his career.
“He came to his debut in the major leagues 45 minutes before the game,” pitcher Justin Masterson said. “He was almost late. His debut, he almost didn’t make it here.
“He was sleeping. They had to call to wake him up. You think about something like that and your major-league debut and the intensity that comes … I imagine it was because he couldn’t sleep before and then he finally got to sleep.”
Then there was Salazar’s impressive outing against the division champion Detroit Tigers on Aug. 7 with the Indians battling the Tigers for the division lead. Salazar threw a career-high 103 pitches and struck out 10 in seven-plus innings before slugger Miguel Cabrera avenged his three-strikeout start with a game-winning home run.
Salazar is 2-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts, averaging 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings. When Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway was asked what exactly makes Salazar so special that he told Francona as much the first time he saw him play toss, Callaway was direct.
“Basically, he throws a ball that gets about eight feet off the ground and it goes about 400 feet,” he said. “Not many people can do that.”
Not many throw as hard as Salazar, either.
“Not a lot of young cats like that have a 100 mph fastball in their back pocket,” Nick Swisher said. “For him, the job he’s done in the time he’s been here has been so impressive. We’ve got a lot of options to choose from, but this is the guy we want. And I know he’s going to be ready for that.”
What makes Salazar close to a complete package at such a young age is that his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2010 taught him how to pitch on a strict pitch count, not to just throw.
“He has such a good attitude,” Masterson said. “The moment’s not going to get him. … He understands the game of baseball. It’s not life, it’s a part of life. It is a big moment, but you can’t do more than what you can do. He’s going to do what he can do. That’s what’s so perfect about it. That’s why I’m excited to see him out there doing his thing.”
Assuming Salazar doesn’t oversleep, that is.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.