There’s a pattern emerging with the Indians’ pitching staff, and it’s no coincidence.
Rookie right-hander Danny Salazar was handed the ball for the Indians last “big game” — a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in October’s American League wild-card game at Progressive Field.
It was the Indians’ first postseason game since 2007.
Six months later, Salazar, a hard-throwing Dominican phenom, will again be the center of attention when he pitches in front of another sellout crowd at Progressive Field in Friday’s home opener against the Minnesota Twins.
Salazar, 24, whose fastball can reach triple digits, showed as a rookie last year that he’s not awed by the magnitude of the moment. No one affiliated with the Indians believes he will be this season, either.
“Every time there’s been a challenge in front of Danny, he’s risen to the occasion,” Tribe general manager Chris Antonetti said.
Treating challenges with the same calm and smiling demeanor that he displays with just about everything else in life is a trait Salazar honed in 2010 when his lengthy recovery from Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery began.
“The way he’s explained it to us is that all he went through with his arm, when’s he’s on the mound — regardless of where that mound is — he’s at home,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.
“That’s exactly what it looks like to me. Whether there’s 42,000 people waving white flags or he’s over on Field 4 in Goodyear, he looks the same. Some young kids you see out there are scared to death. I just think Danny’s a very mature kid on the mound. Some guys have that in them, and that makes them have a chance to be special.”
Salazar’s veteranlike demeanor, combined with a nasty arsenal of pitches that has become markedly better since surgery, helped him carry a no-hitter into the sixth inning and strike out seven Toronto Blue Jays in his major-league debut in July and make him a key member of the Indians’ rotation moving forward.
But there remains one lingering concern that was increasingly hard to ignore this spring. Despite the Indians’ trust in big-game situations, they continue to heavily guard his innings.
Even after reveling in an offseason that finally consisted of more rest than rehab, Salazar was brought along slowly during spring training.
When a majority of his teammates began pitching in Cactus League games to hone their command in anticipation of the upcoming regular season, Salazar remained at the team’s Goodyear, Ariz., complex, throwing bullpen sessions for an audience of a few team officials.
It was two weeks into games before he was even permitted to pitch to live hitters, and that came in 1? innings against minor leaguers in an intrasquad game.
There were no health concerns, but the Indians were careful in monitoring Salazar in anticipation of the long season ahead of him.
As he rose from the Double-A Aeros to Triple-A Columbus and finally onto the Indians last year, he pitched just 145 innings, but it was a career high for Salazar.
“It’s a slow process,” Salazar said. “Sometimes I just want to say, ‘Just let me get out there. Just let me pitch already.’ But I know why we’re doing things this way. I want to have a long career.”
Salazar went 2-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts for the Tribe. He struck out 65 in 52 innings, a strikeout ratio comparable to Indians rookie Herb Score’s 92 in 81 innings in 1955.
The Indians hope it’s just the beginning for Salazar.
“We’re trying to get his gas tank to the fullest because this will be more than likely some uncharted water for him,” Francona said. “There’s not going to be an innings limit and he hasn’t done that for a while. It’s based on trying to have him out there every five or six days for the whole year.”
Looking down the road
If there was frustration on Salazar’s part due to the snail’s pace of his spring camp, he didn’t show it.
“You put in so much work to come back, of course you want to get out there and show it,” he said. “But I respect what they’re doing. I believe it will make me better in the long run.”
There’s truth to that already. Being limited to 45 to 50 pitches through a majority of his minor-league rehab outings helped Salazar be more effective.
It taught him that every pitch should have a purpose, that each toss was too precious to waste.
“When you pitch under that kind of restriction, you learn quickly,” he said. “It really helped me.”
Still, one thing Salazar is looking forward to this year is not having to look over his shoulder at the video board to see how many pitches he’s thrown and how many he has left.
“Now if I sneak a peek,” he said with a mischievous grin, “it will be to see how hard I’m throwing.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at https://ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.