TORONTO -- This was not how the Indians would have imagined it. Then again, that fits this unbelievable, improbable season of theirs. Against all odds, defying all expectations in the wake of so many setbacks, this Indians team is going to the World Series. Believe it, Cleveland.
The circumstances surrounding the clinching game on Wednesday were as incredible and unfathomable as everything else has been for the Tribe. In a 3-0 win over the Blue Jays in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, rookie Ryan Merritt -- with only one Major League start to his name -- blanked Toronto's lineup and lasted long enough for ALCS MVP Award winner Andrew Miller and Cleveland's bullpen to apply the clamp.
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"Nobody has shied away from the challenges that we've faced," Indians ace Corey Kluber said. "It speaks to the kinds of guys we have. Nobody is backing down from anything. Everybody is just trying to go out there and do their jobs."
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That it was Merritt on the mound -- a player so unknown that team owner Paul Dolan was searching for the pitcher in the clubhouse celebration to introduce himself -- was a fitting way for this Cleveland team to win the pennant.
"It is absolutely fitting," said Dolan, as he held the AL championship trophy under his left arm. "It just demonstrates this was an organizational win. We've built a system, so when we needed somebody to step up in a crucial moment, we have people behind them."
On the final out, Troy Tulowitzki popped up a pitch from closer Cody Allen, sending the baseball drifting into foul territory in front of the Indians' dugout. First baseman Carlos Santana camped under the ball, squeezed it with his glove and dropped to his knees. As Santana lifted both arms into the air, his teammates formed a mob all around him in celebration.
What is it about this team?
"I think 'it' is the right word. We just have 'it,'" said Miller. "Nobody's scared. We started a guy that had one career start today, and we had confidence in him, and I think that's special. It's just top to bottom, like I said, there's 25 guys, the staff, top down from ownership, the way they treat us is unbelievable. There's a good reason why we're here."
For the first time since 1997, the Indians are the champions of the AL. This marks the sixth pennant for the Cleveland franchise, which has not won the World Series since the days of Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby in 1948. The 68-year drought is the second longest in the Major Leagues, trailing only the Cubs, who have not won it all since 1908.
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As it happens, the Indians could be awaiting the Cubs, who are currently tied with the Dodgers 2-2 in the National League Championship Series. Game 1 of the World Series will be Tuesday at Progressive Field. This will be the first time the Tribe starts a Fall Classic at home, as its other World Series appearances all began on the road.
On the eve of Wednesday's game, Blue Jays slugger José Bautista quipped that Merritt would be "shaking in his boots" more than Toronto's hitters. Indians manager Terry Francona laughed at that comment, but then did not disagree. Merritt is 24 years old, a wide-eyed rookie, and he was nervous. Rogers Centre houses eight times the population of Celina, Texas, where the lefty went to high school. It gets loud under the closed roof, and the Jays' bats can make the decibel level climb in a hurry.
Before the champagne bottles popped open in the clubhouse, one of Merritt's teammates yelled, "Were you shaking in your boots?"
The team broke into a collective roar and the party was soon underway.
"I heard it," Merritt said of Bautista's comments. "But I didn't let it affect me or get to me. I mean, that's a good lineup. I guess he's got a right to say it. It's my first start, but the emotions out there were kind of crazy at first -- a little nervous. But it settled down, [I] just trusted myself."
Merritt pounds the strike zone, though, and he did so again vs. the Blue Jays, keeping them guessing over 4 1/3 shutout innings. With a fastball that sat around 86 mph, the southpaw was perfect through 10 batters before allowing a single to reigning AL Most Valuable Player Award winner Josh Donaldson in the fourth. Merritt moved on unfazed, creating a double-play grounder off the bat of Edwin Encarnacion to end the inning. The left-hander struck out three, scattered two hits and walked none.
"The only guy that really got in his way was probably me," said Francona. "He gave up one hit, but I thought where he got us, we could turn it over to our bullpen, the guys that have been doing it all year. But 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."
The raucous crowd was quieted by a first-inning run, which was delivered via a wall-bruising double by Mike Napoli. The volume continued to drop with solo home runs by Santana (third inning) and Coco Crisp (fourth), giving the Indians the kind of lead needed to calm Merritt's nerves and once again lean on the bullpen.
Both home runs came off Toronto's Marco Estrada, who pitched admirably for six innings, but was hung with a hard-luck loss in light of Cleveland's stalwart pitching staff. It marked the second straight season in which the Blue Jays exited stage left in October during the ALCS. That is a tremendous tease, and a bit of torture, for a fan base that has not celebrated a championship since 1993.
"One thing you heard me say, it's a special group," said Toronto manager John Gibbons. "They come to play. They had another great year. We got to this point. We weren't able to get over the hump again. But you know what, a damn good job of getting to this point.
"I'm proud of those guys, as well as the coaching staff. I know the organization is proud of them, too. Hopefully the fans are just as proud of them, because it's an entertaining group. They put on a good show. We just got beat in this series. Plain and simple. Cleveland will be a great representative of the American League."
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Bryan Shaw got through the fifth, punctuating his escape with a strikeout of Kevin Pillar. As he bounded off the mound, the reliever pointed at catcher Roberto Pérez and sprinted over to slap him on the rear. Next up was Miller, who has been nothing short of a force in October for the Tribe. The big lefty needed only one pitch to end the sixth with a double play and then worked 2 2/3 innings to hold the Blue Jays at bay.
"To have that guy right now," starter Josh Tomlin said of Miller, "it'd be tough to be in the situation we're in right now without a guy like that."
That set the stage for Allen, who was on the hill for the AL Central-clinching moment in Detroit on Sept. 26 and again for the final AL Division Series win over Boston. There Allen was again, hugging Perez as the players poured from the dugout in celebration.
How did the Indians do this?
They did it without Michael Brantley, who missed all but 11 games due to a shoulder injury. They did it without Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco, who were lost to arm injuries in September. They did it despite Trevor Bauer lacerating his pinkie finger while fixing one of his drones, jeopardizing the Tribe's pitching further in this ALCS. They did it with one of baseball's lower payrolls and with prognosticators picking other teams to take them down every step along the way.
"Our guys, from the start of the year," Indians team president Chris Antonetti said, "really focused on who was here and, 'How do we find a way to win that night's game?' They've overcome a lot of adversity. It's certainly not the script we would have written at the start of the year."
This is a script that would have been rejected by Hollywood, and yet here the Indians are anyway. Four months ago, the Cavs ended Cleveland's championship drought with an improbable comeback to win the NBA Finals. The Tribe is showing that the city might just not be done.
"It's going to be nuts," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "Cleveland rallies around its teams pretty well, especially when it comes to the playoffs. They do a fantastic job showing up. They come with it. They're going to be ready to go, and they're going to be an advantage for us."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Getting ahead early: Given Merritt's lack of experience, and Cleveland's October formula of leaning on its bullpen, striking swiftly was imperative for the Tribe. Heading into Wednesday, the Indians were 68-20 when scoring first, including a 5-0 showing this postseason. Francisco Lindor got things rolling by slashing a curveball from Estrada into left for a two-out single in the first inning. Napoli then drilled a changeup off the left-field wall for a double, with Lindor scoring on Ezequiel Carrera's error while fielding the hit. That allowed Merritt to take the hill armed with a lead in only his first career postseason start, after making just one big league start in the regular season.
"That definitely helped," Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "For the offense to come out off an unbelievable pitcher who's been pitching lights-out in the postseason, to score a run early was huge. Let him relax and, 'Hey, I'm ahead.' So he could just sit there and hit the down-away corner, cut balls in on their hands and make some pitches."
The last hurrah: The crowd at Rogers Centre did not have a lot to cheer about in Game 5, but they did not miss an opportunity to honor their longtime sluggers in the bottom of the ninth. Bautista and Encarnacion are both set to become free agents this offseason, and it's anyone's guess where they will end up. Toronto fans recognized the moment by greeting Bautista with a standing ovation, and he responded with a leadoff double to the corner in left field. That created a thunderous amount of applause, and two batters later, Encarnacion stepped into the box with the crowd doing its typical "Eddie, Eddie" chant. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Encarnacion struck out and the inning did not materialize into anything more than a possible send-off for two of the club's all-time greats.
"I don't think it's the right time to be talking about that," Bautista said when asked if he thought Wednesday's game was his last with Toronto. "We just battled through a tough series. There's a lot of stuff in here and I don't want to make this about myself, and I don't really feel like I'm in the right state of mind to be talking about that. I know it's a possibility, but we'll see what happens."
Crisp, Santana add on: In the AL Division Series, Crisp launched a key home run in Cleveland's clinching win over Boston. The veteran followed suit on Wednesday, pulling an Estrada pitch into the visitors' bullpen beyond the right-field wall in the fourth to give the Indians a 3-0 lead. When working with a cushion of at least three runs this season, the Tribe had a 68-1 record, and that held up again this time. Crisp's blast came an inning after Santana did his part with some power, too. Santana also sent a shot out to right, his coming with an exit velocity of 103 mph. Both blasts were the second of the postseason for each switch-hitter.
"That's us. We're not trying to go out there and be this crazy offense," Napoli said. "We're an offense that works together, whatever the situation is. We try to score early, let our pitchers settle in. As it goes on, we try to scrap [for] runs. Just tack on runs. It's a carbon copy of what we've been able to do all year, what we did today."
Trouble with the RISP: Toronto's first opportunity with runners in scoring position did not come until the bottom of the fifth inning. Merritt surrendered a one-out bloop single to Russell Martin and was then pulled from the game in favor of Shaw. Pinch-hitter Michael Saunders followed with a single of his own as the Blue Jays put a pair of runners on base with one out. Shaw escaped the jam by striking out Carrera and Pillar in back-to-back at-bats to end the inning.
"Probably a bad time to get into what happened and who did what and who didn't," Gibbons said after the game. "Our guys had a tremendous year, they got to this point."
Miller Time: Francona handed the ball to Miller with one out and a runner on first in the sixth inning. The 6-foot-7 lefty escaped with a double play against Donaldson and then turned in his sixth straight multi-inning effort of the postseason. Toronto put seven balls in play against Miller, but still could not break through. In the ALCS overall, Miller ended with 14 strikeouts and three hits allowed in 7 2/3 shutout innings. He is the first pitcher since 2005 (Kelvim Escobar) to have six straight relief appearances consisting of at least four outs in a single postseason. Miller's 14 strikeouts tied an LCS relief record (Brad Lidge had 14 for Astros in 2004).
"Nobody's ever done that. He was unbelievable," Callaway said about Miller's overpowering ALCS. "It was like tonight he [said], 'I'm going to get some ground balls and conserve my pitches.' It was unbelievable. I think the kid can do whatever he wants."
"First and foremost, we're all just fans. I was enjoying the win like everybody else. I still remember in '95, how thrilled I was that my team could make it to the World Series. I never thought that was possible. Now, to do it in this position, to be able to be there with my father and to accept this trophy, those are the things you don't dream about as kids. You can't imagine it's even possible." -- Dolan, who grew up in Cleveland and whose family bought the team in 2000
"There's players that maybe will never or have never experienced a playoff atmosphere at all. So to be able to enjoy these little moments is huge for us. Enjoy it right now. Then when tomorrow morning comes, it's time to show up to work and try to get back to business as usual, and try to figure a game plan against either Chicago or L.A., whoever we've got to face." -- Tomlin
"This morning, I told Napoli, 'I know the team needs me and I have to do something special.' Napoli told me, 'I believe you. You have the talent. You've helped the team a lot.' So, when I hit the home run, he told me, 'I told you. I told you.'" -- Santana
Indians: For the first time in 19 years, the Tribe is heading to the World Series. Cleveland came within one win of reaching the Fall Classic in 2007, but fell short. This team went 7-1 through the ALDS and the ALCS to punch its ticket. Now the Indians await the winner of the Cubs-Dodgers NLCS. In all likelihood, Kluber would take the ball in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Progressive Field.
Blue Jays: Toronto's season is complete. The Jays will open the 2017 season against the Orioles in Baltimore on April 3, with the 2017 home opener set for April 11 vs. the Brewers.