The interview was supposed to happen at 3:00 at David Story Field.
Alex Salazar, a Japanese-born pitcher for the Cowlitz Black Bears, was told to come down to the field a little early, meet pitching coach Cam Margaris and chat for a while. Margaris’ phone rang. He asked where Salazar was.
“The field?” Margaris asked, looking around. “I’m at the field.”
As it turns out, Salazar was close. He just couldn’t get through the locked gate behind the Black Bears’ first base dugout. So we walked around to the ticket booth and back in the ball park.
As he approached, Margaris spoke quietly.
“We’re a little nervous,” he said.
Salazar occupies an interesting space.
His father is Mexican, born there before moving to the Los Angeles area of California. He then moved to Japan, met a girl and settled down, begetting Alex in the process.
Salazar speaks a little English, understands more, but has a rather heavy Japanese accent, one that isn’t an impediment so much as a point of self-consciousness. Every so often Margaris, who acts as Salazar’s informal interpreter, rephrases a question or comes up with a word that Salazar is looking for.
But it hasn’t prevented Salazar from making friends with his teammates.
He roomed with Andres Sosa, Austin Bell and James Sashin. He helped other pitches learn a slider and helped Sashin along with a splitter, two of his five-pitch array. He watched Sosa and Bell work out every day, working their bodies as much as their craft.
It left an imprint on Salazar, who has big plans.
“They work hard. They go to the gym every day,” Salazar said. “I didn’t go to the gym every day back at Riverside College. So they taught me I need (to work harder) outside of baseball.”
But Salazar has no problems working.
He throws 200-pitch bullpens four times a week, a staggering and astonishing number for American baseball players who don’t throw nearly that number.
Margaris admitted to some learning curves when first working with Salazar, but it wasn’t all that difficult. The nature of the West Coast League is dealing with players from different places with different routines. The trick is managing all of those while still slipping in some knowledge from time to time. You don’t want to change guys, you want to help them.
One way Margaris helped Salazar was a focus on velocity.
In Japan, Salazar said, pitching is more of a finesse game. Hitches in the windup are meant to mess with timing. Lots of pitches are meant to fool hitters and keep them guessing. It’s a lot different than the current American mode, which is about throwing as hard as you can with a nasty breaking ball. It’s rare to see an American at Salazar’s age – he’ll start his junior year of college this fall – have such a large repertoire.
“I like to mess with hitters’ timing,” Salazar said.
But after pitching for two seasons at Riverside City College in California, he’s become somewhat Americanized, as Margaris put it.
Last winter, his velocity jumped about three miles an hour, from 86-89 to about 91-93.
“He wants to throw hard,” Margaris said. “He wants to be a power pitcher. He wants to mix mechanics. He wants to learn the weighted balls (and) the plyo balls.”
Salazar always wanted to pitch in the United States.
His favorite player is Yu Darvish, the Japanese fire-baller who first came over to play for the Texas Rangers and is now with the Chicago Cubs after probably the most decorated pitching career in the history if Nippon Professional Baseball, the premier Japanese league.
He wanted to be like that, to make the jump from Japanese baseball to American, and figured the best way was to play college ball, to come up through the ranks like so many do here.
Two years ago, he uprooted his life and moved to California, enrolling at Riverside on his own with no prior contact with the baseball program.
He got ahold of them, asking to throw for them. As Salazar tells it, it wasn’t a guarantee.
“Their head coach though I wasn’t good enough,” he said, alluding to his small stature. “He was surprised when I pitched.”
It’s safe to say it worked out well for Salazar.
In his sophomore season for the Tigers, Salazar through 81 innings with 13 starts, striking out 90 batters (10 K/9 innings) with an ERA of 2.00.
The 81 innings were a lot, so Cowlitz shut him down after 28 2/3 innings with an ERA of 4.39, but that number belies his summer.
His first few outings in the WCL were a little rocky, allowing nine earned runs over 13 2/3 innings.
But his next three outings were outstanding.
In those next 12 innings were scoreless with only one hit allowed with 15 strikeouts and just four walks. He left his starts against Bend and Port Angeles with a no-hitter going, while striking out seven against the Lefties, starting his fantastic run across the month of July.
His very good sophomore season at Riverside attracted the attention of Campbellsville University in Kentucky, an NAIA school that won the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association) World Series in 2018.
It’s a big jump to a four-year school for Salazar, but one that is part of Salazar’s plans.
“I want to reach the big leagues in the future,” he said.