CLEVELAND — It was a win for the present and a sign for the future Thursday at Progressive Field.
At least the Indians hope it is.
But when a 23-year-old comes up from AAA and handles himself with poise and ability in a spot start, and when he no-hits the Toronto Blue Jays through five innings, and when he wins his first game and earns a beer bath from his teammates in the clubhouse after, something has gone right.
Thursday was a day Danny Salazar said he waited for for seven years – since he signed with the Indians as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.
This day was a one-day sign that there is a starting pitcher in the system they can expect to do well. It’s the way they’ve felt since Salazar had a 1.96 ERA in the Domincan Summer League in 2007, and since they protected him on the 40-man roster in 2012, after Salazar had missed an entire year due to Tommy John surgery.
“This guy’s a major league pitcher,” manager Terry Francona said.
Which is exactly what Francona said in the offseason when he saw Salazar throw in the bullpen at the team’s training facility in the Dominican.
Thursday, Salazar acted like he belonged. He gave up no hits through five innings and two through six. He gave up one run, and struck out seven — the most by an Indians pitcher in his major league debut since Luis Tiant struck out 11 in Yankee Stadium in July of 1964.
Tempting as it might be to fans to advocate keeping Salazar in Cleveland, it’s not happening. He was optioned back to Columbus after the game. He’s a year removed from surgery and simply is not ready to throw major league starter’s innings.
The Indians have him on a pitch count — the six innings he threw in his major league debut marked the first time he had thrown six innings this season.
“He just needs to get some innings and get away from Tommy John and build up strength,” Francona said. “(But) that can be what he is. This kid’s got special stuff.”
Salazar threw his fastball in the high 90s, regularly hitting 97 mph and at times hitting 99. He mixed in a changeup that Nick Swisher called “devastating.”
“He kind of reminded me of King Felix,” Swisher said, referring to Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, a four-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner.
Salazar worked fast, and he worked efficiently, throwing strikes on 64 of his 89 pitches. He was obviously excited — he may have set records for fastest to first base on ground balls to first — but he stayed composed.
“He just kind of said, ‘Hey this is what I got,’” Swisher said. “He had a great rhythm going. He just kind of got the ball, got the sign and he was going. There wasn’t a lot of walking around. I feel like he got in such a good rhythm, that I thought that helped him out a lot.”
“I wanted to get ahead in the count and throw my pitches,” Salazar said. “If they hit it, they hit it. If they don’t, they don’t.”
He smiled about being nervous in the bullpen, chuckled about trying to keep himself calm on the mound and candidly admitted he was praying the Indians would score in the bottom of the sixth, which would mean a win, which he earned.
He threw basically a fastball and changeup. He struck out the side in the second, and appeared to have Josh Thole struck out in the sixth, but the umpire decided otherwise. Thole would go on to get the first hit of the game for Toronto.
Salazar wasn’t going to go nine innings, though. Had he he gotten through the sixth without giving up a hit, he would have faced maybe one hitter in the seventh.
“His future’s too bright to be messing around,” Francona said.
Francona thought for a second about the notion of removing a pitcher throwing a no-hitter in his major league debut.
“I might have sent Mickey out to get him,” he said, referring to pitching coach Mickey Callaway.
Salazar started the season in Double-A Akron, but was promoted to Triple-A Columbus in early May. The Indians had been relying on Trevor Bauer for spot starts, but Bauer’s last outing was a mess, and Carlos Carrasco has been a consistent mess.
At a recent meeting of minor league coordinators, Francona asked if Salazar was ready for a spot start, and the answer was unanimously yes. He had the advantage of pitching to a lineup that had never seen him, but he took full advantage.
This was Salazar’s day — not just in Cleveland but back at his hometown on the Eastern side of the Dominican Republic’s North Shore. Salazar said that the entire town of Cabrera was outside in a park, watching his game on a big screen.