CLEVELAND — Danny Salazar had done everything the Indians could have wanted.
He pitched seven innings, struck out Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder five times and had a 3-2 lead.
The young right-hander had hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun, excited the crowd and struck out nine Tigers.
Manager Terry Francona sent him out for the eighth inning.
It was mildly eyebrow-raising … mainly because Salazar had been held to a strict limit of 85 pitches per game in AA and AAA, had averaged 70 pitches per start and because this was his second big-league start.
General Manager Chris Antonetti had said before the game that the minor league pitch count had kept Salazar strong for the final two months, which gave the Indians a little latitude in how they used him in the majors.
So he said he had little hesitation to send Salazar out for the eighth, even with Joe Smith, Cody Allen and Chris Perez ready and rested.
“We certainly thought about it,” Francona said. “But I didn’t think there was any dropoff in his stuff whatsoever.”
The results showed why baseball is a great game. Decisions can go for or against, and sometimes the wisdom of the decision comes down to the result.
Salazar gave up two runs on Cabrera’s cannot shot, and though the Indians tied the game in the bottom half of the inning they wound up losing another game to Detroit they could have won.
That makes three in a row to the Tigers, which drops the Indians to a season high six back in the AL Central. A series that started with excitement has the Tigers counting their superstars — and now winning 12-of-14 over the Indians.
Francona has lived on both sides of the fence in this series. In the first, he took out a starter with a shutout and saw the closer blow a lead. In the third, he stuck with a starter, and saw Cabrera deposit Indians hopes 449 feet away in right-center field.
Should Francona have taken Salazar out after seven, especially when he’s not thrown more than 85 pitches this season?
Should he have gone to Joe Smith for the eighth and Chris Perez for the ninth, the way he said he would after Perez blew the last save?
Especially since he has said several times this season that when a starter gets deep in a game and the opposing hitters have seen him three times, the edge goes to the hitter?
Salazar got two quick outs, then gave up a base hit to Torii Hunter. Up walked Cabrera, as dramatic a regular season moment as there could be.
The kid who had hit 100 miles per hour, who had struck out Cabrera three times, against a future Hall of Famer who never walks to the plate without swagger.
Salazar was at 102 pitches, but Francona said he never really thought of not leaving Salazar in.
“Because he was throwing about as well as you could,” Francona said. “That would have been his last hitter, but to that point I’d have had a hard time justifying having him not pitch.
“That’s how good he was.”
Cabrera deposited pitch No. 103 into the stands in right-center, just to the right of the Indians bullpen, nearly 450 feet from home plate.
Salazar’s fastball was 96 miles per hour, but the location wasn’t good. And any pitch that isn’t located properly against Cabrera is a risk. Cabrera made the Indians pay.
It’s baseball, and it’s also greatness, because Cabrera is as good a hitter as this generation has seen. He does it all, against everyone. And after striking out three times on Salazar fastballs he wasn’t going to strike out a fourth.
Detroit’s dugout erupted as Cabrera watched the flight of the ball, just as it did in the 14th when Prince Fielder’s opposite field double drove in the game-winning runs.
Francona has two rings, and he’s done much to help the Indians win often this season.
But he admits that part of the fun of baseball — win or lose — is the postgame discussion about these moves.
It’s tough to find an obvious choice in the bullpen with a better chance than Salazar to get Cabrera.
Then again, the bullpen is paid to finish games.
Francona has said several times when a pitcher gets three times through the order the hitters have a good read on him and it’s his job to have the bullpen ready.
That being said, had a bullpen guy given up the same shot to Cabrera, the noise might be louder.
Perhaps the focus should be adjusted.
Instead of thinking this, that or the other about the Indians, there is one unqualified reality about that dramatic moment: Cabrera is that good.
Make the slightest mistake, and he will take advantage. Make a bigger-than-slight mistake, which Salazar did, and he will crush it.