CLEVELAND -- If the Indians are going to pull off a late-summer push to the postseason, stunning the baseball world the same way the club did one year ago, much will rest on a resurgence from within the starting rotation.
Danny Salazar boasts the kind of arm and potential to help sway Cleveland's playoff chances one way or the other. The young right-hander did so last fall during the Tribe's run to the American League Wild Card Game, and he is positioned to try to have a similar impact over the final two months this year.
On Friday night, the Indians' offensive provided a wealth of support in a 12-2 romp over the Rangers, giving Salazar a chance to continue to settle in, build on his previous efforts and guide Cleveland to the the win column. It was the kind of combination that the Indians hope to see more often as the team tries to chip away at its deficits in both the AL Central and AL Wild Card standings.
"We know exactly the type of stuff that he has," Indians right fielder David Murphy said. "We know how capable he is. We know how talented he is. It's just a matter of him applying it and being comfortable at the big league level."
Cleveland has a long way to go, but August began with a bang.
In the opener of this three-game weekend set with an injury-plagued Texas club, the Indians (54-55) churned out 10 runs on 13 hits against right-hander Jerome Williams, who exited after allowing the first five batters of the fifth to reach safely. That frame spiraled into a six-spot for the Tribe, which received contributions up and down the lineup.
All-Star Michael Brantley went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs before using the final few innings of the rout to rest on the bench. Shortstop Mike Aviles drew a walk, collected two singles and knocked in three runs. Murphy had two doubles, two RBIs, four hits and an outfield assist against his former club. Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes each added an RBI.
"Everybody was having good quality at-bats over and over," Brantley said, "and kind of just passing the torch. It was nice. We had some big key hits. It was fun. it was a fun game."
The overwhelming showing on offense by the Indians led to the Major League debut of Rangers reliever Phil Klein -- an Ohio native -- in the sixth inning. Four pitches into his first taste of The Show, Klein was wecomed with a towering home run off the bat of Lonnie Chisenhall. The third baseman's 10th shot of the season pushed Texas behind, 12-1.
Thanks to the considerable cushion, Salazar was able to leave with a win well enough in hand after six solid innings of work.
"It was awesome," Salazar said of the offense. "They were on fire."
The Rangers' only breakthrough against Salazar came in the fifth inning, when Robinson Chirinos doubled to right field, advanced to third on an error and scored on a groundout by Rougned Odor. Beyond that one blemish, Salazar worked around the potential harm of the three walks he issued, ending with four strikeouts, four hits and 95 pitches.
In three starts since being recalled from the Minors, the 24-year-old Salazar has gone 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA across 18 innings. During that stretch, he has piled up 17 strikeouts, allowed 17 hits and issued six free passes. It has not been perfect, but Salazar has displayed progress from his early-season stint, when he went 1-4 with a 5.53 ERA in eight outings before a trip back to Triple-A Columbus.
"What I really like is, from the get-go, he's throwing his best stuff," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He's not easing into the game. Now, tonight, he lost the strike zone for a couple hitters, but he reeled it back in and got out of that."
Getting Salazar back to form could be a boon for Cleveland, which traded Justin Masterson to the Cardinals on Wednesday and designated struggling starter Zach McAllister for assignment on Friday with the intention of optioning him back to Columbus. Behind Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, the Tribe needs Salazar to solidy the heart of its starting staff.
"It'd be a huge boost," Brantley said. "He's throwing the ball very well. I think our offense did a great job of scoring runs early for him so he could kind of settle in. But watching from center field, he was moving the ball in and out, attacking the zone, attacking hitters. He looks very good right now."
Salazar said it will take more games like Friday night's win for Cleveland to reach its season-end goal.
"It's not just me -- the team," Salazar said. "If we keep playing like that, we're going to get [to the playoffs] again."