Turning Point: Game 114
The situation: With the Indians clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning, rookie right-hander Danny Salazar sat at 102 pitches with two outs, a runner on first base and slugger Miguel Cabrera in the batter’s box.
The decision: Indians manager Terry Francona left Salazar in the game to face Cabrera.
The outcome: Cabrera launched the first pitch he received, a 96-mph fastball, deep to center field for a go-ahead, two-run home run. Cleveland tied the game with one run in the bottom of the eighth, but Detroit went on to win the game in the 14th inning.
The analysis: Salazar had three strikeouts in his first three meetings with Cabrera. In the first inning, the hard-throwing righty froze the slugger with an 88-mph changeup. In the third, Salazar blew a 99-mph heater by Cabrera’s swing. In the sixth, it was a 100-mph fastball that eluded Cabrera’s bat.
In the first at-bat, Cabrera watched all six pitches he received, getting a look at five fastballs (each in the 98-99 range) and the one changeup. In the second at-bat, Cabrera swung at all three fastballs he faced, fouling off two before the strikeout. In their third meeting, Cabrera fouled off a first-pitch fastball, saw two sliders (one that generated a swing-and-miss and one for a ball) before swinging through another heater.
So, following five watched fastballs, Cabrera had a 60-percent contact rate on the next five fastballs in the at-bats leading up to the home run. He saw three offspeed pitches, but spit at two of them. After three first-pitch fastballs in three at-bats, Cabrera was looking dead-red in his fourth at-bat.
This season, Cabrera had hit only .125 (1-for-8) when facing a starting pitcher for the fourth time, heading into Wednesday. That lone hit, however, was a home run. Over his career, Cabrera’s batting average has increased with each at-bat against a starting pitcher: .307 (first at-bat), .329 (second at-bat), .347 (third at-bat), .359 (fourth at-bat).
Salazar, who has had his innings closely watched all season, was over 100 pitches for the first time this year. He topped out at 89 pitches for Triple-A Columbus on June 4. Over 21 Minor League appearances between Double-A and Triple-A this year, Salazar averaged 70 pitches per start. In his most recent outing, he was pulled after 52 pitches.
Francona, on leaving Salazar in to face Cabrera: “Because he was throwing about as well as you could. That would’ve been his last hitter, but to that point I would’ve had a hard time justifying having him not pitch. That’s how good I thought he was.”
Salazar, on the eighth-inning at-bat: “It was the fourth time I faced him. I wasn’t thinking too much. I [threw it] past him a couple times with my fastball. When I tried it again, fastball, I left it in the middle, and he hit it.”
Cabrera, on Salazar staying in the game: “I mean, I don’t want to face him the fourth time. He get me out the first three times. I was saying to myself, ‘It’s time to bring in the bullpen.’ And when they decided to leave him in there, I say, ‘Let’s grind out this at-bat, try to make something happen.'”
My verdict: To be honest, I was surprised Salazar was on the mound to start the eighth inning. In fact, I had already started writing his pitching line in my scorebook before I realized he was on the mound warming up for that frame. Once Francona stuck with him for the eighth, I wasn’t surprised he let him face Cabrera, given the three previous strikeouts. At that point, if you commit to him, you commit to him, in my opinion. To me, and this is obviously with the benefit of hindsight, the mistake was not going to the bullpen to begin the eighth inning.