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Rookie Merritt unfazed by Game 5 magnitude

In just second career start, lefty can punch Tribe's World Series ticket @castrovince

TORONTO -- They joke in the Indians' clubhouse about the things that would come out of Ryan Merritt's mouth if the club advanced to the World Series against, say, a certain team from the North Side of Chicago.

"What's the World Series?"

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TORONTO -- They joke in the Indians' clubhouse about the things that would come out of Ryan Merritt's mouth if the club advanced to the World Series against, say, a certain team from the North Side of Chicago.

"What's the World Series?"

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ALCS Game 5: Today at 4 p.m. ET on TBS/Sportsnet/RDS

"Wrigley Field? What's that?"

:: ALCS: Blue Jays vs. Indians coverage ::

"Why is that stuff growing on the walls?"

The jokes come from the sense that this kid Merritt, this 24-year-old whose second Major League start just so happens to be today in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, is far from affected by his surroundings -- even if those surroundings are a racous Rogers Centre with the Indians trying to close out their first AL pennant in nearly two decades.

"It's not that he's naïve," reliever Dan Otero said. "It's just that he's not really into baseball history or anything like that. None of what's going on fazes him."

Added teammate Cody Anderson: "He just wants to play [strategy video game] 'Clash of Clans' and tune the world out."

The Indians were actually able to quickly tune out their 5-1 loss Tuesday. This club hasn't lost four in a row all year, so it obviously has no plans to do so now, to go where only the 2004 Yankees dared to tread.

And really, given all that's gone on with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and now Trevor Bauer and his problematic pinkie, there would be something perversely appropriate about Merritt, plucked from the depths of desperation, coming through in the clutch and pitching this club to the postseason's highest plateau.

"I think it would be awesome," Otero said, perhaps stating the obvious. "Remember, he was a big part of us getting home-field advantage. He won that big game for us in Kansas City, when home field was kind of on the back burner for us. He gave us those five good innings against Kansas City and we started to think, 'OK, maybe we can get the home field, after all.'"

Home field still has particular prominence in this series, as the Tribe could lose Game 5 and still feel confident in its ability to close it out in Game 6 or 7 at Progressive Field.

Video: ALCS Gm5: Merritt discusses emotions pitching in ALCS

All that being said, there's no denying this series could get awfully interesting now that Toronto has life and Cleveland is sending such a uniquely inexperienced arm out for Game 5.

Merritt, a 16th-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft out of McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, is not a big guy, at least not for a big league pitcher. He stands 6 feet and weighs 180 pounds. He's much more a strike-thrower (108 walks in 684 1/3 Minor League innings) than a strikeout artist (471 Ks, or 6.2 per nine innings). He throws an assortment of pitches -- primarily a fastball in the high 80s and a changeup, as well as a cutter and a curveball. He profiles for all the world like an old-school crafty lefty, the kind who won't overpower you but sure can frustrate you.

Ranked the 29th-best prospect in the Indians' farm system by, Merritt's scouting report there concludes, "His lack of premium stuff and perennially low strikeout rate limits his upside, but he has all the tools to develop into a fifth starter or swingman at the highest level."

Merritt has pitched 11 innings in the big leagues. Eleven! He will be the least experienced starter in LCS history and the least-experienced in any round since Matt Moore, who had 9 1/3 innings under his belt when he twirled seven scoreless innings for the Rays in Game 1 of the 2011 AL Division Series against the Rangers in Texas.

The difference between Moore and Merritt is that Moore was ranked as MLB's top pitching prospect when he made that start in the ALDS. Merritt, meanwhile, is arguably the most unheralded rookie to start a postseason game.

Starting Corey Kluber on short rest for Game 4 was sensible, albeit ultimately unsatisfying. The Indians wanted to make sure Kluber was available to them should this thing go seven games, and Kluber battled through some command issues to give them five solid innings. But Game 4 was all about Toronto starter Aaron Sanchez and the way his high-velocity stuff overpowered a Cleveland offense that struggles with the heat.

"You just look at the pop on his fastball," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "We see it all the time, but some days he is just really jumping."

So now we jump to Game 5.

Merritt's moment.

This would be an absolutely insane scenario if it weren't for the fact that absolutely insane is the new norm on this Tribe team. Making do without Carrasco and Salazar was the expected outlook for October, and then Bauer got his right pinkie caught in a drone propeller just to add to the absurdity of it all.

Video: ALCS Gm5: Merritt discusses facing Blue Jays' lineup

Merritt wasn't even going to be on the ALCS roster before that drone strike Thursday night. The roster submitted to MLB on Friday morning was to include reliever Joseph Colon. But when the Bauer situation presented itself, the Indians decided to protect themselves with some length, and Merritt had remain stretched out by pitching a handful of innings in the fall instructional league in Arizona.

"I think I'll be ready for it," Merritt said. "The crowd is going to get hyped when they get a hit or whatever. But I'll just move on to the next hitter, get him out and keep pitching to my strengths and not let it sneak up on me."

Reporters snuck up on Merritt in the aftermath of Game 4, and he patiently took on all comers as wave after wave of cameras and questions were placed before him. He had a slight smile on his face as he spoke in his Texas twang about the challenge ahead, and several of his teammates watched and smiled as they saw the interrogation take place.

The only time Merritt strayed from the script was when he was asked to spell his fiancée Sarah's name after he mentioned she'd be in attendance.

"With an H," he said. "Don't mess that up. She'll get on you!"

Video: ALCS Gm5: Merritt on Kluber's start, upcoming start

Will the Blue Jays jump on Merritt? Jose Bautista sure thinks so.

"With our experience in our lineup," Bautista said, "I'm pretty sure he's going to be shaking in his boots more than we are."

The Indians, on the other hand, think riding an untested rookie to the World Series is just crazy enough to work.

"He's our secret weapon," backup catcher Chris Gimenez insisted. "Just because he's unknown. If there's one guy that's not going to be rattled by the situation, it's him. To him, it's just another day."

To the Indians, at this point, this really is just another day. Eleven career innings? Whatever. It's an appropriately ridiculous arrangement on a team that has routinely turned the ridiculous into the sublime.

"It's an honor to be pitching this game," Merritt said.

And if he wins it, he can start asking all those questions about the World Series. Or go back to "Clash of Clans."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians, Ryan Merritt