TORONTO – In the far corner of the visitor’s clubhouse at Rogers Centre, with champagne spraying in every direction around him from teammates he barely knew, Ryan Merritt stood with ski goggles atop his head and ecstasy from ear to ear, trying his best to explain the inexplicable Wednesday night.
The 24-year-old lefthander couldn’t have drawn up his performance any better because, really, no rookie would have had the audacity. And so he continued smiling, continued trying to find the right words, not fully comprehending that he actually offered more insight during moments in which he was speechless.
Cleveland is going to the World Series for the first time since 1997 because he, Ryan Merritt, unknown in most parts including northeast Ohio, led them past the Blue Jays with a near-flawless pitching performance in a 3-0 victory in Game Five. It was difficult for anyone to fathom.
For him, it was downright ridiculous.
“It is,” he said. “Not many people get to do this, you know? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in this spot.”
He stopped, and he laughed.
“With the Indians!”
He laughed again.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “And I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Merritt was a part of it, all right.
He threw only 49 pitches, including 33 strikes, but he sat down the first 10 batters he faced and gave the Tribe precisely the game they needed to close out the Jays. He joined a gritty lunch-bucket lineup that personifies the City of Cleveland. Cleveland won an NBA title last season and is looking for its first World Series title since 1948.
“We’re headed to the World Series,” catcher Roberto Perez said. “I can’t believe it. I’m trying to enjoy the moment.”
Before the ALCS began, the last player expected to lead them to the World Series was the 24-year-old Merritt. Last week, he was pitching in the Arizona Instructional League, for heaven’s sake. He was added to the postseason roster when starter Trevor Bauer reopened a gash he suffered while fixing his drone.
Merritt, selected in the 16th round in 2011, made his big-league debut in May. He appeared in four games with one start. He had pitched only 11 innings for the Indians before taking the mound in Cleveland’s biggest game in nine years. He spent most of the season in Triple A Columbus, posting an 11-8 record with a 3.70 ERA.
“I really don’t know what to say,” Merritt said. “I’m glad everything out there happened. I’m glad I got the chance. Some people might recognize me now. The next time you see me, you might know me. I don’t know.”
If he looked familiar, it’s only because he looks like the kid who bags your groceries. He’s listed at 6-foot and 180 pounds but looks smaller. The fresh-faced kid took down the Blue Jays’ heavy hitters over 4 1/3 innings Tuesday.
Merritt confirmed early that he knew how to pitch. His fastball was in the 85-86 mph range, which you can find on any high school field. But he had complete command over his nasty curveball and changeup and effectively changed speeds, allowing him to sneak his fastball past big-league hitters. In his second career start, Merritt put on a pitching clinic.
It was spectacular under any conditions, but his dominance in a deciding game to reach the World Series was nothing short of incredible. Indians skipper Terry Francona made the decision to start him. He kicked back and enjoyed the show before turning to his veteran bullpen to guide them home.
Bryan Shaw allowed one hit, Andrew Miller held the Jays scoreless through the eighth, and closer Cody Allen finished Toronto in the ninth.
“Watching Ryan Merritt pitch, the only person who got in his way was me,” Francona said afterward. “I thought he had gotten us to a point where the bullpen could take over. But what he did was above and beyond his years.”
The Indians had two hits in the first inning, matching their total in Game Four, and struck first when Francisco Lindor singled and Mike Napoli doubled off the left-center field wall with two out. The early lead took a little pressure from Merritt before he threw his first postseason pitch.
Carlos Santana homered to right in the third inning after starter Marco Estrada, who pitched the Jays to two wins in elimination games last year, left a flat fastball in the middle of the plate. Santana’s bomb left the ballpark in a hurry, and the Indians were in control with a 2-0 lead.
Coco Crisp added another solo shot in the fourth when Estrada left another pitch up in the zone. Crisp’s homer came on a 2-2 pitch with two outs, and it gave the Tribe a 3-0 lead. Merritt settled into a nice groove and threw three perfect innings before Josh Donaldson singled in the fourth.
“What a special day for him,” Andrew Miller said. “What an incredible game. There was something about that kid. You had a good feeling. Other teams try to say things and play those mental games with guys, but he was clearly focused, and he executed. He was unbelievable. What a special experience for him. We’re going to the World Series because he pitched well.”
Merritt showed no signs of nerves. Jose Bautista grounded out on a dribbler to third, Donaldson bounced to second, and Merritt fooled Edwin Encarnacion with a 71 mph curveball for the third out. He retired all three again in the fourth and exited after allowing a bloop single in the fifth.
“I definitely got into a zone and got focused,” Merritt said. “I knew I had to pitch well against this lineup. When I was out there, I did my best to relax and stay within myself and tried not to let the game beat up on me and the crowd to interrupt me. I trusted my defense and trusted myself.”
As for Bautista, well, flip him.
He had been invisible in the first four games before making an attempt to tap into Merritt’s psyche after the Blue Jays avoided the sweep Tuesday. Bautista said the young lefty would be “shaking in his boots” Wednesday. Sure enough, Bautista was hitless against the kid.
Moments after the clubhouse doors opened, amid the celebration and players demanding the unassuming Merritt make a speech, someone grabbed cowboy boots from his locker stall and held them above the chaos.
“We should get Joey Bats to sign them,” one of the Indians screamed across the clubhouse. The Indians cheered.
Merritt stood there and smiled, without saying a word.
After that performance, words were better left unspoken.