Two of the best pitching prospects the Double-A Eastern League has to offer went head-to-head Thursday morning, and in the end Danny Salazar's Akron Aeros emerged triumphant with a 4-1 victory over Jameson Taillon and the Altoona Curve.
Salazar is MLB.com's eighth-ranked prospect in the Indians organization, while Taillon, the Pirates' first-round Draft pick in 2010, is ranked as his organization's No. 2. The latter worked six innings and took the loss, allowing three runs -- two earned -- on seven hits while whiffing six. Most of the damage was done in the first, as Taillon allowed two runs on four hits and handed Akron a lead it would not relinquish.
But while Jameson was on the rocks in the early going, Salazar's performance during this mid-morning matinee was another story. The 23-year-old Dominican right-hander was, in a word, overpowering, striking out a career-high 12 batters over six scoreless innings. He fanned six in a row over the second and third and took a perfect game into the fifth before yielding an infield single and two walks.
And though some pitchers might profess to not even notice who they're up against, Salazar readily acknowledged that facing a highly touted foe such as Taillon further increased his competitive drive.
"It does," he said with a chuckle. "I am always competing, but knowing that the other guy is good too makes me want to get that win even more."
His outing set the tone for the bullpen, as Austin Adams, Bryan Price and Jose Flores combined to strike out five more batters over the final three frames to bring Akron's strikeout total to a stratospheric 17. Never before had so many Curve batsmen struck out over the course of a nine-inning ballgame, as the previous record of 16 was set on August 13, 2008.
After compiling a 6.39 ERA over his first three starts of the season -- all losses -- Salazar has now hurled 17 consecutive scoreless innings en route to improving his record to 2-3. This recent triumvirate of dominating outings is no coincidence, he said.
"My first game I was physically and mentally good, but the next two games I felt good but was mentally not ready," he said. "I talked to my manager [Edwin Rodriguez] and he told me, 'You have to concentrate more because a big part of winning is getting ready mentally.'"
Salazar, therefore, has been more prepared in advance of his starts, having more thoroughly scouted the opposition to develop a plan of attack. This approach, in concert with his natural talent, is now paying dividends.
"Everything is working for me right now -- the fastball, change-up and slider," he explained. "Every single hitter, I'm trying to get ahead with that first pitch."
That said, Salazar claims he isn't necessarily going for strikeouts.
"I'm just try to make it through every inning throwing less pitches than the one I did before so I can go deep into games." said Salazar, who tied a season high with 82 pitches. "This is the first time I've thrown more than five innings, so I feel a little bit tired in my lower body."