In 2011, Fernando Salas was the coolest and calmest Cardinal amid the chaos of a bullpen collapse.
Without the poise Salas displayed in effectively filling the closer role for most of the 2011 season, the Cardinals never would have been in position to make their late-season run for the wild-card playoff berth that put them on the path to a World Series championship.
When the Cardinals traded third baseman David Freese and Salas to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos and outfield prospect Randal Gruchuk on Nov. 22, 2013, Freese, hitting hero of the 2011 World Series, deservedly received countless fond farewells.
Salas virtually was ignored.
Often overlooked is that Salas was “the stabilizing force” in the Cardinals’ 2011 season, according to teammate Lance Berkman.
S.O.S. for Salas
Sid Monge, a former big-league reliever who became a pitching coach in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, had seen Salas pitch in the Mexican League and recommended St. Louis sign him in 2007.
After making his big-league debut with St. Louis in 2010, Salas gave up just one run during the Cardinals’ entire spring training camp in 2011, but failed to make the Opening Day roster. He reported to Memphis and earned two saves in three scoreless relief appearances for the Class AAA club.
Meanwhile, Ryan Franklin, the Cardinals’ veteran closer, was blowing leads at an alarming rate. Desperate, the Cardinals turned to Mitchell Boggs and then Eduardo Sanchez as the closer and called up Salas to bolster the bullpen.
When neither Boggs nor Sanchez could hold down the job, the Cardinals tried Salas.
Unflappable, the spring training reject blossomed as the closer, earning 16 saves in his first 18 chances.
Berkman, the Cardinals’ veteran right fielder, told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Salas is “the single stabilizing force on this team.”
“He’s stepped up and been a consistent performer in the back of the bullpen,” Berkman said. “… Consequently, everybody else has settled into a good role. Now we have a pretty solid group. But the key is him.”
Wrote Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch: “Salas has become an unexpected answer to a ninth-inning riddle that once jeopardized an entire season.”
Mixing a changeup with his fastball, Salas, who turned 26 on May 30, 2011, was 3-0 with 11 saves and a 1.88 ERA on June 7 that season.
Strong, silent type
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told the Post-Dispatch that Salas had “a good coolness to him.”
“He’s got great guts,” La Russa said.
Added pitching coach Dave Duncan: “He hasn’t been in any situation yet where it’s like he’s emotionally affected by it.”
Said general manager John Mozeliak: “The one thing about him is that he’s always remained calm and cool. That quality serves him well.”
Salas’ skills were best illustrated in a May 19, 2011, game against the Astros. Brought in to protect a two-run lead, Salas faced former Cardinals prospect Brett Wallace with one on and one out in the ninth.
After throwing three consecutive pitches outside the strike zone, Salas was in danger of walking Wallace and putting the tying run on base. He got Wallace to foul off three pitches and then struck him out swinging on an off-speed offering. The Cardinals won, 4-2. Boxscore
“My favorite pitch of the whole game was that 3-and-2 off-speed pitch,” La Russa said to the Post-Dispatch. “… It’s one of those that if you miss a little bit all kinds of bad things can happen. One of the things Fernando can do is control his off-speed stuff.”
Said Mozeliak: “Over the last three years, his ability to pitch has evolved. He has shown the ability to get big outs. It’s not something you can trace on a radar gun. It’s a credit to him.”
Using teammate and fellow Mexican Jaime Garcia as an interpreter, Salas said simply, “I feel really good. I’m basically down for whatever they want me to do.”
The Cardinals utilized Salas as the closer until power pitcher Jason Motte took over the role in the last month. Still, Salas helped down the stretch, posting a 2.19 ERA with one save in 12 September appearances.
Salas finished the 2011 season with 24 saves and a 2.28 ERA in 68 games. He struck out 75 batters in 75 innings and yielded only 50 hits.
Right-handed batters hit .164 (25-for-152) against Salas in 2011. With runners in scoring position, all batters hit .203 (13-for-64) off him.
Though he couldn’t repeat that success _ he was 1-4 with a 4.30 ERA in 2012 and 0-3 with a 4.50 ERA in 2013, with no saves in either season _ Salas’ rescue of the Cardinals in 2011 should be better appreciated.