CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – No matter what happened after Andrew Miller allowed a game-tying home run to Justin Smoak in the 8th inning, the result was already in. The Indians won.
The Tribe went on to win, 2-1, in extras on Saturday night, but for a team that more-or-less expects to be in the post-season, the re-emergence of an All-Star level starting pitcher in the middle of a pennant race with a Hall of Fame-level outing was enough reason to chalk the night up as a ‘W.’
Danny Salazar turned in one of the best starts of his career against the Blue Jays, facing the minimum 21 batters through seven innings of work. He allowed just one hit, a single to Kevin Pillar in the 3rd inning, but it the Toronto center fielder was erased on a 4-3-6-4 double play a batter later.
Salazar struck out eight, as well.
“Boy, that was pretty impressive,” Manager Terry Francona said. “We talked about it before the game, best-case scenario, that was it. He came out throwing strikes. He had velocity. He attacked.”
By no means does the right-hander’s singular quality outing mean he is back to his peak form, and by no means are the Indians anywhere near out of the woods in the American League Central. This is just a matter of timing.
The Indians have time to figure out their inconsistent offense, all while having the pieces to make a turnaround plausible. They do not have much time to figure out their approach to the trade deadline, and Salazar’s performance makes that picture a lot clearer.
Again, one start does not answer any question fully. No front office should make a decision on one start, but unfortunately the Indians have to make one based on two at most.
The sample size will be small, but Salazar’s effort on Saturday at least gave a window into some telling issues about the right-hander’s condition.
Prior to his DL stint due to right shoulder soreness, Salazar’s fastball averaged 94.9 mph according to Fangraphs. In his return, the 27-year old’s heater averaged 96.6 mph, topping out at 98.7.
Salazar obviously had the juices flowing, but Francona said the return to peak velocity was about more than just adrenaline or even the time off.
“I think it was hard work,” he added. “He did so many drills. Even things like trying to get him strong on that back side, almost doing some infield drills. Like a backhand, setting your feet just to kind of get him to drive the ball home where he’s not just using his arm. You could tell by the way he threw, that he was using his legs tonight which was really good.”
A big issue with Salazar at the beginning of the year was his control, as his walk rate hit a career-high 11.2%. Not only did he not walk anyone on Saturday, he peppered the zone, hitting the mark on 61 of his 86 pitches.
Ultimately, the focus regardless of the deadline will be the long-game on Salazar.
“Well I mean you always set out to win a game, but this is also long-term. I think the plan that was put in place was really solid, and I think Danny did a really good job,” Francona said. “But for the long haul, (you want to) have him situated where he’s ready to pitch every five like I said, or six days and let’s go. Because there’s so much talent there, it just got to a point where I thought Danny needed to kind of build a base because his confidence was lacking. The best way to build that is through hard work.”
Salazar admitted that his confidence had been at least slightly shaken after what was an utterly disappointing start to the year.
“You have to be (questioning confidence) a little bit,” he said. “Even though you’re struggling, you’re not 100 percent and you try to stay positive the whole time, going out there and trying to do your job and it doesn’t work. You start doubting a little bit. I think sometimes we make a little mistake when we’re not feeling good and try to help the team.”
Deal or no deal come July 31, if Salazar replicates what he did Saturday even just 75 percent in each of his starts, he will help his team more than he may realize.
“It’s almost like making a trade,” Francona said. “Kind of like we said with Carrasco a few years ago when he had the hamstring. You’re getting a pitcher that’s fresh. It can be a huge lift for us. That’s the hope.”