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Closing comes as a relief to Salas
11/29/2006 9:50 AM ET
For years, Juan Salas' managers were waiting to see his power at the plate. But the third baseman's inability to transfer his batting practice skills to the game left them shrugging their shoulders.

This year, Salas caused opposing hitters to do the same thing.

In just his second full season as a pitcher, the 28-year-old right-hander put together one of the most dominating streaks in recent Minor League history, earning himself MiLB.com's Reliever of the Year award.

Salas opened the season as the closer at Double-A Montgomery and finished it as a September callup with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In between, he went 47 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.

Along the way, he resuscitated his baseball career. As a rocket-armed third baseman, Salas seemed to have topped out in the mid-Minors because he couldn't hit for power.

"He was a fringe Major League player (as a third baseman)," said Charlie Montoyo, who tossed his share of BP to Salas as his manager in Charleston, S.C., and Bakersfield, Calif. "An in-between."

Salas hit only 28 homers in more than 500 Minor League games at a power position. So the player whose arm had been compared to those of Ken Caminiti and Shawon Dunston was going to have to make a change if he wanted to keep playing baseball.

Former Devil Rays director of player development Cam Bonifay suggested Salas put his arm to use as a pitcher.

"It was a helluva change," Montoyo said.

Salas began the season with three saves in three tries, a nice start for a prospective closer. Even better, he didn't allow a run in his first six appearances.

At that point, Montoyo -- again Salas' manager -- knew something good was going on but wasn't sure whether the run was a fluke.

"We figured maybe he's just dealing against the teams that aren't so good," Montoyo said. "But then it just continued against the good teams, too. We realized that we had a star."

Over 34 2/3 innings, Salas did not give up an earned run in the Southern League, notching 52 strikeouts while allowing only 14 walks and 11 hits. He was promoted to Triple-A for the first time at any position.

Salas, speaking Spanish from his home in the Dominican Republic, explained that he never had any hesitation about making the change.

"Everyone wants to make it to the Major Leagues," he said. "So whether it's as a pitcher or third baseman, it doesn't matter."

And while he hadn't been on the mound in years, he wasn't too worried about the transition.

"I had pitched when I was younger," he said. "But things were going fine as a third baseman, so I never thought of making the change."

And, along with the blazing fastball, he seems to have the right mentality to be a closer.

"He's one of those kids like that. He's got it all," Montoyo said. "It was like when Birmingham had Bobby Jenks. As soon as he comes into the game, you get excited because you know it's over. He's not intimidated by anyone."

That makeup served him well as he moved up to Triple-A, facing more experienced hitters in Durham. He went another 12 2/3 frames without allowing an earned run.

Salas said he and his family appreciated the attention he gained from the streak.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the run was that he was doing it with one pitch, a mid-90s fastball that has natural movement away from right-handed hitters. Salas is trying to refine his slider and work on a splitter, but he was getting good results with his fastball.

"That's where, as a coach, you come into play," Montoyo said. "You tell him, 'Even though you're dealing with what you've got, we need you to work on this.'"

The streak finally came to an end after the All-Star Break -- he retired one batter at the All-Star Futures Game in Pittsburgh -- when the Columbus Clippers reached him for two runs in a 10-7 loss to Durham.

So the run was over. And Salas got the loss in an 8-7 setback to Charlotte on Aug. 10. In 28 2/3 innings at Triple-A, however, he gave up just five earned runs and 15 hits while striking out 33 and holding opponents to a .149 average.

When he was promoted to Tampa Bay after a sparkling two-inning performance for Durham on Aug. 29, his success didn't automatically continue. Over eight big-league appearances, Salas allowed seven runs -- six earned -- in 10 innings. Most of the damage was done during a 16-1 loss to the Yankees, when he gave up three runs.

"I didn't have any butterflies," Salas said of his experience in the Majors. "It felt good to face those famous hitters like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and (Hideki) Matsui."

While it remains to be seen whether Salas can duplicate his success as a Major Leaguer, it's clear there's little left for him to accomplish in the Minors. He said he's not sure what the Devil Rays have in mind for him, but now that he's gotten a taste of the Majors, he wants to stay there.

And if they ever need a pinch-hitter, he's ready for that, too.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.