By now, Ryan Merritt is practically a household name after his gutsy outing against the Blue Jays to help the Indians clinch the American League pennant. (And speaking of household – a number of Indians fans made sure that his household would be stocked with wedding registry items). However, this is not the first time that a soft-tossing rookie pitcher helped vault the Indians into the World Series. In 1948 (prior to divisional play) the Indians ended the season tied at the top of the American League with the Boston Red Sox. This meant that the team would need to face the Red Sox in a one-game playoff in order to advance to the World Series. Even though the Indians had names like Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Satchel Paige on their roster, player/manager Lou Boudreau ended up going with the rookie Bearden. Like Terry Francona’s decision to use Merritt, the choice paid off.
Gene Bearden (left) poses with fellow Indians hurlers Bob Feller (center), and Bob Lemon (right) in 1949
During the last month of the 1948 season, Boudreau relied heavily on the 27-year-old Bearden (who turned 28 in September of 1948) and was rewarded for his decision. Between September 6 and October 2, Bearden had nine appearances – 7 of which were starts, with 2 relief appearances. As a comparison, Josh Tomlin had 5 starts between September 5 and October 2 in 2016 (he was the only starter consistently healthy for the whole month). Of Bearden’s 7 starts, 5 of them were complete games; 2 of those 5 were complete game shutouts. It’s easy to see why Boudreau may have gone with Bearden over someone like Feller – he was the hot hand at the time. The one-game playoff with the Red Sox was on Monday, October 4; Bearden had just thrown a complete-game shutout two days prior on Saturday, October 2. By the time Bearden entered that game with Boston, he had 221 major league innings under his belt.
In the one-game playoff, Bearden tossed a complete game, allowing 1 ER on 5 hits, walking 5 and striking out 6. He neutralized a lineup that contained Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, and all-stars Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Vern Stephens, Stan Spence, Billy Goodman, and Birdie Tebbetts. The Indians managed 8 runs against Denny Galehouse and Ellis Kinder to beat the Red Sox 8-3. According to Bearden’s SABR bio by Ralph Berger, the rookie pitcher was calm and collected prior to his start in this important game.
Bearden had an amazing path to the majors, where he debuted at the age of 26 in 1947, pitching just a third of an inning that season. Originally signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1939, Bearden played with several minor league teams until he joined the Navy in 1942. After he completed basic training, Bearden was assigned to the USS Helena in the Pacific. The Helena was actually struck by three torpedoes in July of 1943 while in the Kula Gulf near the Solomon Islands. Bearden was grievously wounded and left drifting on a life raft after the attack. After his rescue, he eventually had a metal plate placed in his head, and a metal hinge in his knee to help repair the massive amount of damage his body took during the torpedo attack. Despite the injuries (and the fact that he was probably in frequent pain thanks to them), he returned to baseball after the war. Bearden was in the New York Yankees farm system in 1945, and was sent to the Indians in a five-player trade in 1946.
Bearden pitched a complete-game shutout in game 3 of the World Series, as the Indians defeated the Boston Braves 1-0. He pitched out of the bullpen in game 6, earning the save after allowing 0 ER on 1 hit in 1.2 IP as the Indians clinched their World Series victory. Even though Bearden went 20-7 with a 2.43 ERA, a WHIP of 1.28, and an ERA+ of 168 during the regular season in 1948, he was never able reproduce this success. In 1949 he went 8-8 as his ERA ballooned 5.10 and his ERA+ plummeted to 78; he bounced around the majors until 1953 but was never again the pitcher he was in 1948.
Catcher Roberto Perez congratulates pitcher Ryan Merritt after the fourth inning of game 5 of the ALCS in Toronto
Ryan Merritt was drafted by the Indians in the 16th round of the 2011 draft, number 488 overall; the same year that the Indians took Francisco Lindor in the first round at number 8 overall, and the Arizona Diamondbacks took Trevor Bauer at number 3 overall. Merritt worked his way through the Indians minor league system, and started the 2016 season with the Columbus Clippers, after splitting time with Columbus and the Akron Rubber Ducks in 2015. In the minors, Merritt put up solid numbers even if he did not profile as a future superstar. He’s not going to blow anyone away at the plate; his fastball hovers around 87 and typically tops out at 90 mph. Merritt has very strong command (much like the soft-tossing Josh Tomlin) and his changeup is considered his best pitch. Unlike Bearden’s 200+ innings in 1948, Merritt had thrown just 11.2 innings in the majors prior to his playoff appearance.
As we all know all too well, the Indians’ rotation has been decimated by injuries this season. With Danny Salazar listed as unavailable for the ALCS, and Carlos Carrasco out for the year with a broken hand, the Indians would be forced to rely on a rookie pitcher to fill in – either Mike Clevinger or Ryan Merritt. Clevinger had been penciled into the fourth game of the ALCS originally, but eventually Francona decided that Merritt may match up better against Toronto’s heavy hitting lineup. This is the kind of thing that could turn out to be a brilliant move or a complete disaster. But with the way Francona has managed the bullpen throughout the playoffs, you knew that Merritt only had to put in 4 or 5 innings in order to hand the ball off to Andrew Miller and company.
Like Bearden nearly 70 years before him, Merritt was calm and collected prior to the start of game 5. He didn’t have the same level of pressure as Bearden – if the Indians lost in 1948 they went home – while the 2016 Indians would still return to Cleveland with a 3-2 game lead. At the same time, you didn’t want to give Toronto any opportunities to get back into the series. They had a formidable lineup and a group of talented starters; they were going to be a threat until the final out in the Indians’ fourth win. Even though Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista said that Merritt would be “shaking in his boots,” he seemed completely unfazed by a team that tore through the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, sweeping the team with the best record in the AL out of the playoffs in three games.
We have no way of knowing if Merritt will be able to replicate his success in the World Series; to be honest, we don’t yet know if the Indians plan to use him as a starter or out of the bullpen. We also have no way of knowing if the 24-year-old Merritt has a long, successful career ahead of him, or if it will take the same unfortunate turn as Bearden’s. Merritt does has age and health on his side; he’s four years younger than Bearden was when he vaulted the Indians into the 1948 World Series and also lacks the massive, traumatic skull and knee injuries that Bearden sustained in the torpedo attack during World War II (which could’ve easily nagged at him and inhibited him as time went by).
For now, Merritt did exactly what he needed to do – he gave the Indians 4-5 good innings on the way to clinching the AL pennant. Now they get a chance to try for their first World Series victory since Bearden’s heroics in 1948.