CLEVELAND — The Indians have put their postseason lives in the hands of a 23-year-old rookie who has made all of 10 career starts on the major league level. And, get this, they feel good about it.
Danny Salazar, a fireballing phenom from the Dominican Republic, has met a number of challenges this year, but none bigger than the one he will undertake tonight when he steps on the mound to start the American League wild-card game against the Rays at Progressive Field.
“Believe me, we wouldn’t pitch him if we didn’t think it put us in the best position to win,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Salazar, who is 3-2 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts since joining the rotation in early August. “Danny has done nothing since the day he arrived to make us feel like he can’t win a game like this for us. For a young kid, he’s so poised.
“If I had stuff like him, I’d be poised, too. But there’s a difference between being able to throw 100 (mph) and pitching, getting major league hitters out, and Danny can do that.”
Salazar has already made his big league debut and has pitched against some of the majors’ top hitters over 52 innings thus far. It’s an elevated postseason stage this time around, but he said he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
“Right now it seems like they have confidence in me, Tito, (pitching coach) Mickey (Callaway), everybody here,” Salazar said. “I’m just going to go out there and do my best and compete. I know if we lose, we’re out. If we win, we’re still in.
“I don’t think I’m going to be nervous. The mound is where I feel most comfortable, more calm. I’ve been playing a lot of baseball, not in the majors, but it’s kind of the same game. You just have to make adjustments quicker. If you want to make any mistakes, do it in the bullpen, because in the game, you’re not going to have a chance for that.”
Salazar may be young, but he’s got top-shelf ability and a high-octane heater that the Indians hope will help counter any growing pains tonight.
“Not a lot of young cats like that have a 100-mph fastball in their back pocket,” veteran first baseman Nick Swisher said. “The job that he’s done in the time he’s been here with us 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.”
“I think his self awareness is pretty good,” Francona said of Salazar. “If he happens to struggle (tonight), it’s not going to derail his career. I hope he goes right through them. That would obviously help our chances of moving on.”
Salazar will be facing a Tampa Bay team with another up-and-coming young pitcher in 25-year-old right-hander Alex Cobb, who went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts this season.
Cobb endured a career-threatening injury in mid-June, when he was hit in the head by a line drive from Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer, but returned from the disabled list after a two-month absence to maintain his elite effort — 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA in nine starts.
“We faced him April 6 and he just kind of carved us up,” Francona said of Cobb, who tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings at the Indians in a 6-0 win. “He’s good. He’s got three pitches that he can throw at any time in the count. He arguably may have been their best pitcher the last couple months, so we know we have our hands full.”
Cobb went to high school in Florida (Vero Beach High) down the street from Cleveland left fielder Michael Brantley.
“He’s been throwing the ball great,” said Brantley, who faced the freshman Cobb as a senior at Fort Pierce Central High. “Our job is just to be better than him (tonight).”
And better than Tampa Bay, which, like Cleveland, comes into the wild-card game riding momentum. The Rays went 14-5 to finish the regular season, then beat Texas 5-2 in a one-game playoff for the right to play tonight.
The Indians’ well-publicized late-season run included a 10-game winning streak to end the year and a 21-6 record in September. They clinched the top spot in the wild-card race with a four-game sweep of Minnesota to end the regular season.
According to Francona, both teams’ hot streaks matter little on the playoff stage.
“I’m glad we did (finish the season on a winning streak), but it goes about as far as Cobb,” he said. “If we’re not getting any hits off Cobb, what we did against Minnesota doesn’t matter. We got here because of that, but now it all starts fresh for both teams.”