Does everyone know who Ryan Merritt is now?
Two days after Tito’s very subtle announcement that he would be pitching a potential clincher in Game 5, Merritt was absolutely masterful for 4 1/3 shutout innings as the Indians staked a lead that they would not relinquish on their way to clinching the American League pennant. For the sixth time in franchise history, the Indians will be playing in baseball’s World Series.
Who saw Ryan Merritt coming, though? Seriously? This is the guy who had one Major League start under his belt and a grand total of 11 innings in the big leagues. He may now lead the league in Google searches, at least in the greater Cleveland area, and the 24-year-old Texan now puts his name in Indians’ lore as the second rookie in franchise history (after Gene Bearden) to pitch the team to a pennant.
If his boots were shaking, as Jose Bautista suggested, it went unnoticed. He was as unflappable as Michael Myers stalking through Haddonfield on Halloween night – ruthlessly efficient, although admittedly with a cheesier grin. Canada was not warned.
Fortunately for the rookie, the offense gave him an early advantage in the top of the first on a two out single by Francisco Lindor and a booming double by Mike Napoli, seemingly fully refreshed after a several week slump in the batter’s box. Merritt responded by pounding the Jays with first pitch strikes to all three batters in the first, retiring the side on 13 pitches (nine strikes). The run was all the Indians would need tonight.
The Tribe was back at it in the third, this time on an 0-1 fastball up in the zone that Carlos Santana did not miss.
2-0 Tribe, and Ryan Merritt was busy throwing first pitch strikes to eight of the first nine Blue Jays hitters. The kid was in control and the Rogers Centre crowd was eerily silent. They didn’t know it yet, but they would have little reason to cheer for the rest of the game.
In the top of the 4th, it was Coco Crisp’s turn to jump on a Marco Estrada mistake, taking a middle-up changeup out and over the right field wall for a 3-0 lead. Hat tip to cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel for this tidbit:
If you weren’t a snake-bitten Indians fan, you had to be feeling pretty good at that moment knowing that the throwers of lightning, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, were waiting patiently in the bullpen. Merritt had one more test to pass in the 4th, however, and he aced it.
After retiring the first ten batters he faced, Merritt lost his no-hit bid (as if Tito would ever let him get deep into this one) on a single by Josh Donaldson. Merritt then fell behind Edwin Encarnacion 3-0 and faced the prospect of bringing the tying run to the plate, Troy Tulowitzki, if he lost Encarnacion. Fastball, 84 mph, strike one on the outside edge. Another fastball, 86 mph, again on the outside edge. Then a 3-2 changeup pounded on the ground for an inning GIDP. Double play! Merritt grinned again.
Merritt, of course, was lifted with one out in the fourth. In another era, he would have pitched six, seven, maybe eight innings. But he also may have lost his edge as he toured the Blue Jay line-up for the third time around. The Blue Jays tee off on fastballs and struggle with the breaking stuff. We saw it all series, and Merritt was the perfect foil, never once topping 86 mph. Tito was not going to push his luck, however, and was eager to hand it over to Bryan Shaw to bridge the gap to Andrew Miller.
What else can be said about Andrew Miller at this point? He went another 2 2/3 innings tonight and has used this postseason to demonstrate that he’s the most valuable relief pitcher since Mariano Rivera. In four games this series, Miller tossed 7 2/3 shutout innings while allowing two base runners and striking out 14. After the injuries to the rotation, it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to imagine the Indians in the World Series without Andrew Miller in this bullpen.
Cody Allen relieved Miller in the ninth, striking out two before getting Tulo on a harmless foul pop that sent Santana to his knees in celebration.
The World Series gets started here in Cleveland next Tuesday night and the Indians await the victor of the Dodgers/Cubs NLCS. We’ll preview those teams in the coming days here at IPL but if you’re a long-suffering Indians fan – who cares!? Your team is in the Series.
It’s been 19 years, but Rocktober is back in Cleveland and the city will have one of the all-time great parties next Tuesday night. The Cavaliers open their season the same night by celebrating June’s championship right across the gateway from Corey Kluber’s first pitch, and LeBron James and company will have something else to do other than cheer on these gritty American League champs. I think the rest of Cleveland, Ohio will make up for his absence at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
What’s the rotation going to look like after Kluber and Tomlin? Will Danny Salazar return? Who cares, does it even matter anymore?
Duct tape, shoe shine and moxie have led these guys through Boston and Toronto, allowing just 15 runs total over eight games, while winning 16 of their last 18 games overall. Who’s going to tell the 2016 Indians that they don’t have a chance to break the franchise’s 68 year title drought?