The Emergence of an Ace?

There is usually more than one moment before an ace is crowned for a pitching staff, but yesterday, Danny Salazar had one of those moments. Better yet, it wasn’t his first.

Yesterday, Salazar kept the Detroit Tigers—the best offense in the American League—off balance for six strong innings in a game the Indians desperately needed to win. He allowed just six hits, while not walking a hitter and striking out five. He matched Detroit starter Justin Verlander, pitch-for-pitch all afternoon.

It’s very ace-like to go out, even when the deck may appear to be stacked against you and give the team a quality start. Salazar did that yesterday. He also did it on a very efficient 77 pitches. The Indians have imposed an 85-pitch limit on the budding star for the rest of this season. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and issues with his ulnar nerve at the beginning of 2012. He has pitched on a limited pitch count since those nerve issues. One of the by products may have been teaching him to be pitch efficient and to attack the strike zone. If he doesn’t throw strikes, or has long innings, he stands to be removed from the game.

He was efficient yesterday, while Verlander—a pitcher he has tried to mimic in his career—threw seven innings on 116 pitches. There was a day where the Tigers would have limited Verlander just like Salazar. Had Salazar been able to throw 100+ pitches, he would have pitched into the eighth or ninth inning.

But the best sign from Salazar on Sunday was how he handled the Tigers for the second time in his career. It’s the first team Salazar has faced for the second time. Detroit had chances to make adjustments against a young, inexperienced pitcher, yet they still had no answer for him. Except for a Miguel Cabrera home run in the eighth inning on Aug. 7, the Tigers have had little answer for Salazar over 13.2 innings.

Salazar may be on a pitch limit now and handled with kid gloves for the rest of the season. If the Indians fall out of playoff contention in the next couple weeks, don’t be alarmed if he’s shut down a couple starts early. But come 2014, he will very likely be in the Opening Day rotation and healthy. The kids gloves will come off and he’ll likely be clear to throw 180-200 innings. The American League should look out because it could be one of the Indians’ better additions to their starting rotation this offseason.

Detroit should also beware since they appear to have no answer for the young fireballer. He’s the kind of piece to the Indians’ puzzle that could begin to bridge the gap that has felt like the Grand Canyon between first and second place in the American League Central Division the last few seasons.

Starting to lead the Indians to that next elite level, may be the largest sign of a budding ace of them all.

Photo: Leon Halip/Getty Images

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