TORONTO – Ryan Merritt finally allowed himself to smile during the only meeting Terry Francona had with him on the mound. The kid nobody knew before Game Five came through better than anyone expected, perhaps better than he expected, before leaving the game in the fifth inning.
Merritt threw only 49 pitches, including 33 strikes, but it was enough for Cleveland. The Indians built an early lead for the rookie left-hander, making just his second career start, and eliminated the Blue Jays with a 3-0 victory before 48,800 in Rogers Centre to win the American League Championship Series.
The Indians advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1997 with gritty, lunch-bucket lineup that personifies the City of Cleveland. The Tribe hasn’t won the World Series since 1948. The last player they expected to lead them in the clincher was none other than the 24-year-old Merritt.
Cleveland’s infielders patted the young lefty on the head like he was a Little Leaguer when Francona walked to the mound in the fifth. Merritt looked relieved when he was relieved, knowing he best served to exit while ahead and allow the Indians’ veteran relievers to show him the way home.
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-centerfield 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. After Jose Bautista predicted Merritt would be shaking in his boots, the Indians responded by swinging out of their shoes.
Merritt showed no signs of nerves in his first postseason start. Jose Bautista grounded out on a dribbler to third, Josh Donaldson bounced to second, and Merritt fooled Edwin Encarnacion with a 71 mph curveball for the third out. It was exactly what the Indians needed from their young nobody in the opening frame.
The kid confirmed early that he knew how to pitch. He sailed through the first three innings while effectively changing speeds. His fastball was in the 85-86 mph range, which you can find on any high school field. But had complete control over a nasty cureball and change, which allowed him to sneak his fastball past big-league hitters.
Francona wasn’t asking for much. He merely needed Merritt to keep the Indians in the game long enough to secure a lead before turning Game Five to his veterans in the bullpen. But with the kid sitting down the first nine batters, he merely needed to kick back and enjoy the show.
Merritt retired the first 10 batters he faced before Donaldson hit a sharp single to center in the fourth. Any fantasy the Jays had about finally solving the rookie ended when Merritt induced Encarnacion into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
In his second career start, with an opportunity he never would have imagined before the series began, Merritt put on a pitching clinic. He was spectacular under any conditions, but his near-flawless performance in a deciding game to reach the World Series was nothing short of incredible.
He came out after allowing a bloop single to Russell Martin in the fifth inning. The Indians congratulated him when Francona handed the ball to Bryan Shaw, who allowed one hit before getting out of the inning. Andrew Miller held the Jays scoreless through the eight, and closer Cody Allen allowed a double in the ninth before finishing off Toronto.
But it all started with The Kid.
Who is Ryan Merritt?
He was selected in the 16th round in 2011 and made his debut this season, appearing 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. Last week, he was pitching in the Arizona Instructional League.
He was added to the roster when Trevor Bauer reopened a gash he suffered while fixing his drone. Merritt spent the year in Triple A Columbus, posting an 11-8 record with a 3.70 ERA. Francona wished the kid luck and sent him to the hill against Toronto’s right-handed sluggers.
Francona is one of the most cerebral managers in baseball. He worked his magic with the Indians, who had the 21st-highest payroll this season. He has been masterful in the postseason, especially so with his pitching staff. The positive he took from the loss in Game Four was that his top relievers were rested.
Merritt was an unknown, which meant the Blue Jays didn’t know him, either. It makes the decision crazy enough to work. No matter how it appeared, the move to throw the kid on the mound wasn’t completely absurd.
In fact, coming from the left side with his below-average fastball, above-average changeup and good command, Merritt established early that he was the kind of pitcher who could give the Jays fits. If he worked his way into a jam, Francona knew he had plenty of backup at his disposal.