CLEVELAND -- The call to the Major Leagues, if only for one game, is nothing new for Indians left-hander Ryan Merritt. By now, the pitcher does not need to consult a GPS when making the two-hour drive up I-71 to Cleveland from the Clippers' Triple-A home in Columbus, Ohio."I've got
CLEVELAND -- The call to the Major Leagues, if only for one game, is nothing new for Indians left-hander Ryan Merritt. By now, the pitcher does not need to consult a GPS when making the two-hour drive up I-71 to Cleveland from the Clippers' Triple-A home in Columbus, Ohio.
"I've got it down," Merritt said with a laugh after Friday's 4-0 win over the Royals. "My wife does, too."
The nerves no longer build up with each mile driven like they used to for Merritt -- not after taking the mound for the Indians in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in a roaring Rogers Centre last fall and pitching Cleveland into the World Series. True, the Tribe is again in the postseason hunt, but a Friday-night tilt in August against Kansas City hardly carries the same weight.
Over a career-high 6 2/3 innings, Merritt's calm demeanor and experience overcame the fact that his 97 pitches averaged out at 84 mph. The lefty pounded the strike zone with precision, leaning mostly on a fastball-cutter-change mix, while working in that curveball that baffled Toronto's hitters back in the postseason. He struck out three, walked one and earned a standing ovation at his exit.
The Royals appeared overmatched against an arm that will never be described as overpowering.
"When he's pitching like that, it's so fun to watch," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He's not breaking the radar gun, but he pitches in so effectively, and he just stays off of the barrel."
Giovanny Urshela is known for his glove work at the hot corner, and the third baseman is plenty familiar with Merritt from their many games together at Triple-A in recent years.
Asked about Merritt's style, Urshela flashed a wide smile.
"I love Merritt, the way he throws," Urshela said. "The hitters, they hit a lot of ground balls. I like guys that hit ground balls."
That can lead to some highlight-reel plays.
In the first inning, Tribe shortstop Francisco Lindor ranged up the middle, snared a grounder off the bat of Melky Cabrera with a dive, and then used a glove flip to start a double play with second baseman Jose Ramirez. In the second, it was Ramirez's turn. He sprinted to his right and made a diving catch to rob Salvador Perez of a hit on a low line drive. Urshela got his chopper in the seventh and made a slick play of his own for an out.
"You know the ball is going to be coming your way at some point," Lindor said. "You've got to be a little bit more aware."
Merritt tries to use that heightened awareness to his advantage.
"Throwing strikes is the biggest thing," Merritt said. "Throwing strikes and commanding the ball is going to keep your defense awake. If they see that they can make contact at any time, because you're throwing strikes, then that's what you want. You want to be alive and not fall asleep on you."
Merritt has gained the trust of the Tribe's Major League staff for spot starts such as this one due to that ability to consistently throw strikes. That trust has grown even more now, knowing the trip back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues is not going to rattle the pitcher's confidence.
And if asked, Merritt will head back down I-71 to Columbus, knowing that another call could be coming soon.
"Going up and down," Merritt said, "it's better than not coming up, you know?"
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.