Relieveland! Title not without Merritt

Tribe rookie undeterred by Game 5 stage, delivers scoreless start

October 19th, 2016

TORONTO -- sprinted out of the visitors' dugout at Rogers Centre and was the first Indians player on the field. The pitcher ran across the turf, jumped over the first-base chalk line and plucked the baseball from the mound dirt before getting ready for some warmup tosses.

That display at the start of the third inning Wednesday made one thing very clear: Even with a trip to the World Series on the line, Merritt was not overwhelmed. The small-town kid from Texas was eager and ready to take on Toronto's lineup, and his name will now be remembered for decades by Tribe fans after the Indians' 3-0 win over the Blue Jays in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.

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"I loved it," fellow Indians starter said amidst the champagne mist in the visitors' clubhouse. "I loved every second of it."

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Merritt was counted out before the game even began. With a fastball that registers around 86 mph -- slower than 's changeup -- the Blue Jays' lineup was supposed to be licking its chops and sending souvenirs into the left-field seats. Instead, Merritt flirted with the edges of the zone, pumped strike after strike after strike, worked into the fifth and helped push the Indians to their first World Series berth since 1997.

World Series Game 1: Tuesday on FOX

Circumstances led to Merritt being in this position. With right-handers and Carrasco injured, Cleveland's rotation has been whittled down to three: , and Tomlin. Merritt was not even going to be on the ALCS roster, but plans changed when Bauer cut open his right pinkie finger Thursday night. The Indians went with Merritt as insurance, and then handed him the ball for Game 5.

Before the game, Indians manager Terry Francona passed the 24-year-old lefty and shared a few words.

"I just wanted to let him know this isn't life or death," Francona said.

There were nerves -- plenty of them -- but Cleveland picked Merritt for a reason. The Indians' advance scouting of Toronto's lineup led to a few discoveries. First, the Blue Jays are susceptible to breaking balls. That is why Kluber and Tomlin set career highs in curves thrown in Games 1 and 2. Cleveland also found that having a lefty who can get ahead quick can tilt the percentages in the Indians' favor.

While the Indians were doing this homework, though, Merritt was out in Arizona facing hitters to keep his arm loose. He pitched in instructional league games and had simulated outings. The idea was to keep him ready in case of emergency. Well, emergency called, and the scouting reports indicated that Merritt would be a good choice. Even with only 11 Major League innings to his name, Merritt could be counted on to throw strikes.

"We looked into it," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "If you're a lefty and you throw first-pitch strikes and fill up the strike zone, these guys don't do a ton."

The Indians also felt confident that Merritt would not be intimidated by a Rogers Centre crowd that has rattled plenty of pitchers before him.

That feeling dates all the way back to when Merritt was pitching for McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, before the Indians picked him in the 16th round of the 2011 MLB Draft. When Cleveland got to know Merritt, it believed that his calm demeanor and competitiveness were attributes that could overcome any lack of stuff.

"Our scouts did an unbelievable job of recognizing that," said Brad Grant, Cleveland's director of amateur scouting. "The way he handled it was incredible tonight. He didn't get rattled."

Rogers Centre houses around 50,000 fans, which is roughly eight times the population of Celina, Texas, where Merritt went to high school. Tomlin -- a native of Whitehouse, Texas -- said Celina was known for its powerhouse football program. Now, it's the "Home of Ryan Merritt."

"No doubt about it," Tomlin said. "He's the face of that dang town right now."

Merritt's first batter of the game was Blue Jays slugger , who rolled over an 84-mph cutter for a groundout to third baseman Jose Ramirez. One day earlier, it was Bautista who said that Merritt would be "shaking in his boots" more than Toronto's hitters.

"I heard it," Merritt said.


With those words on his mind, and under the skin of all Merritt's teammates, the lefty was perfect through the first 10 batters he faced. After he finally surrendered a single to in the fourth, Merritt recovered with an inning-ending double-play groundout. He worked two more batters in the fifth before Francona opted to turn the game over to the bullpen. ALCS MVP Award winner Andrew Miller and Co. then finished the job.

"The only guy that really got in his way was probably me," said Francona. "For him to do what he did under those circumstances, he may not look the part, but he is beyond his years, and it's one of the most phenomenal things I've ever seen."

Before the champagne popped in the clubhouse after the win, a teammate yelled, "Were you shaking in your boots?"

Another shouted: "Speech, Merritt! Speech!"

Merritt smiled, but kept quiet.

Then, the party started.

"He's the unflappable Ryan Merritt," Callaway said. "He probably doesn't even know [Toronto's hitters'] names."

They know his name now.