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Salazar’s Return to Form Giving Optimism For Another Long October Run

Salazar’s Return to Form Giving Optimism For Another Long October Run

| On 20, Aug 2017

Before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, a good number of Cleveland Indians fans were clamoring for their favorite baseball team to trade for starting pitching.

For much of the season’s first three months, the Indians were mostly a two-man rotation. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco were throwing like the two-headed aces that they are. However, the rest of the starting five was not holding up its end and Cleveland’s starting pitching was largely a disappointment.

In mid-July, the question of just who the third starter would be if the Indians could get back to the playoffs for a second straight year was unsettled. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin were struggling. Danny Salazar was similarly struggling and injured. Mike Clevinger was looking much better in his second big-league season, but leaning and depending on a guy who struggled as a rookie in 2016 and really only had pitched well in a handful of Major League games seemed like a stretch.

Still, Tribe management did not make a deal. The front office felt that the starting pitching, the backbone of the team the last few seasons, would rebound and reclaim is position as one of the best in all of baseball. More importantly, the Indians felt that the perfect complement in the rotation to Kluber and Carrasco was already on the roster. He just needed to get healthy and regain the confidence he lost last year.

That player was Salazar. By late July, he was getting ready to come off the disabled list after a month and a half away with an ailing right shoulder. The idea of getting back a healthy and rejuvenated Salazar allowed Cleveland to resist the urge to trade away top prospects for starters such as Sonny Gray or Yu Darvish. The prevailing thought was that if Salazar was going right, he could be every bit as good or better than those two All-Star arms who likely would have cost the Tribe its prized prospect in catcher Francisco Mejia.

Salazar, himself, was an All-Star just a season ago. However, not much had gone right since last year’s Midsummer Classic. A pitcher who had sterling numbers with an 11-3 record and 2.75 ERA last July 19, fell far and fast over the next calendar year.

He spent the season’s final two months struggling to get batters out and struggling with confidence. He said he was feeling discomfort in his pitching arm, a minor ailment that caused him to not be able to pitch in the All-Star game. Despite tests showing that he was okay, the discomfort seemed to mess with his head and mechanics.

The Tribe shut him down for most of the remainder of the season after a rough September 9 start. He did not pitch again until the World Series, when he was on the roster as a reliever. He only played in those games when the outcome was basically no longer in doubt as a way for Indians manager Terry Francona to try to show his pitcher with an All-Star arm that he was healthy and could have confidence in his pitches once more.

Cleveland’s 27-year-old, who was tabbed to start its one-game Wild Card appearance as a rookie in 2013, came into Spring Training seemingly healthy and with a positive attitude. Unfortunately, the first two months of this season unraveled the way last year’s ended.

Salazar got off to a rough start to the 2017 campaign. In 12 appearances (ten starts), he was 3-5 with a 5.40 ERA. He was striking out batters at an amazing rate. However, it seemed if he wasn’t striking them out, they were hitting him hard. He would show flashes of what made him an All-Star the first half of 2016, but then regress into the bad habits that made him frustrating to watch post-All-Star break.

He finally succumbed to the shoulder ailment after a relief outing on June 3. He had been put into the bullpen to work on rebuilding his game and his mindset. It seems all he may really have needed was some time away.

Since coming off the DL ,Salazar has made five starts. He will make start number six Sunday in a big game against division rival Kansas City. The Indians and their fans should have confidence that he can deliver a good game against the Royals. It seems he has rediscovered the lost confidence he’d had in himself.

Salazar is on roll. In his five appearances he his once again pitching like an All-Star. In those five games, he has allowed a grand total of five runs for a sterling 1.40 ERA. He is 2-0, due to lack of run support. He has four quality starts, having pitched seven innings three times and six once. An August 10 outing against Tampa saw him struggle with his command. He was effectively wild in walking four and striking out eight, but was only able to go five and one-third innings. Still, he gave up just one earned run.

Salazar has allowed just one earned run or less in four starts and the fifth start was two earned runs. He has been nearly unhittable since his return. He has fanned eight or more batters each time and only issued more than two free passes in a game twice. Two of his starts saw no bases on balls. That is big for a guy who has had command issues his whole career.

This run Salazar is on has not come against a host of lightweight teams, either. The Rays are a Wild Card contender. He has also faced playoff contenders in the Yankees and Twins. The Blue Jays, despite being last in the AL East, still boast an impressive bevy of offensive talent.

Indeed, Salazar is pitching like the guy who was an All-Star a season ago. The Indians once again have three All-Star caliber hurlers going at the same time. Kluber is a two-time All-Star and a Cy Young winner, while Carrasco was largely considered an All-Star snub this year.

Barring a catastrophe during the regular season’s final quarter of games, the Tribe appears to have found its answer regarding who the team could depend upon as a third starter down the stretch and in hopefully what will be another long playoff journey.

Last year, Salazar and Carrasco both got hurt in September and were not a part of the postseason rotation. It left the Indians with Kluber as the lone dominant starter on the staff. Tomlin and Bauer were decent, but no more than back-of-the-rotation starters. Still, even with Bauer getting hurt during the ALCS, the Indians got within one win of a World Series championship.

Cleveland’s chances of ending its 69-year title drought improve with Carrasco healthy and in the No. 2 spot down the stretch and in a possible postseason run. The odds get all the better with a third dominant starter. The Indians did not see the need to go outside the organization for that third guy. Salazar is rewarding the team’s confidence by pitching better than ever right now and giving the Tribe the hope and belief that it now has three top-of-the-rotation starters for what are now the season’s most crucial games.

Photo: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

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