CLEVELAND -- Ryan Merritt wanted to be more than just the “ALCS Kid.”
But let’s rewind a little bit.
The then-24-year-old pitcher began the 2016 season at Triple-A Columbus. He got his first taste of the big leagues on May 30 that year, tossing 4 1/3 scoreless innings in relief against the Rangers. The left-hander, who had posted a 3.70 ERA in 24 starts for the Clippers, made two other relief appearances for Cleveland before finally making his first Major League start on Sept. 30.
The organization had already clinched the division title four days prior, and was turning its focus toward securing home-field advantage. After back-to-back losses to the Tigers, an inexperienced Merritt was there to put his team back on track -- giving up just one run on three hits over five innings in a 7-2 Cleveland win.
At that point, it was easy for Merritt to assume his time with the big league club had come to an end for the season. The team wrapped up the year with a 94-67 record and was set to face the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. But it was at that point the rookie, with just 11 innings under his belt, was sent to Arizona to stay loose -- just in case Cleveland needed him in the postseason.
“I’d only made one start in my career,” Merritt said. “At that moment, it was really cool for me just to know that I was even like an option at all to ... come up and be able to pitch in the postseason.
“It’s even crazier I got the opportunity to.”
The drone incident
After sweeping Boston, Cleveland had a four-day wait before the start of the AL Championship Series. When the roster was finally announced, Merritt had made the cut.
"He's a guy that starts and throws strikes," Guardians manager Terry Francona said at the time. "Having a guy that throws strikes and has seemed to handle everything that's been thrown at him so far, he might end up bailing us out of a game. You never know."
“Bailing out” would become an understatement.
The starting rotation was set: Corey Kluber would handle Game 1, Trevor Bauer was ready to toe the rubber in Game 2 and Josh Tomlin would start Game 3. Mike Clevinger was going to work out of the bullpen for the first two contests and then be the Game 4 starter (though the plan was to handle it as if it were a bullpen game). It was a formidable rotation, and Merritt knew his role was to be an extra depth piece in case an emergency arose.
Cue the emergency.
Prior to Game 1, Cleveland announced Bauer had injured his right pinky finger while working on his drone. It’s a story that will forever follow the right-hander, who has since been able to embrace the mishap by playing along with the jokes.
In that moment, the team hoped switching Bauer and Tomlin’s start days would give the wound enough time to close. But a bloody mess through just two-thirds of an inning in Game 3 caused Bauer to be pulled from his start, sidelining him for the rest of the series. Suddenly, Merritt’s value increased exponentially.
“They told me I would maybe start Game 3, and then Bauer ended up starting it,” Merritt said. “Then the next day, they’re like, ‘Hey, Kluber’s gonna start Game 4,’ and we end up losing that game. And then that night after the game they told me that I’ll be starting the next day.”
“They had a lot of damage guys on the right side, which would seem to be a difficult matchup,” Bauer said. “It would seem like that’s what you would want against a lefty pitcher.”
The Blue Jays thought so, too, especially against a guy whose fastball sat in the mid-to-upper 80s. Bautista’s infamous line that Merritt, who was about to be the least-experienced pitcher to ever start an ALCS game, would be “shaking in his boots” in this pressure-filled start, quickly reached Cleveland's clubhouse. But not a single person in the organization, including Merritt, was worried.
“There was an extreme sense of like calm, almost,” Bauer said. “I think that team had such good chemistry and belief in itself at that point of the year that it didn’t really matter who we ran out there. No one worried about it. … It was just kind of a calm confidence.”
“Before the game, Tito and [then-pitching coach Mickey Callaway] brought me in the office and said, ‘Look, just be yourself,’” Merritt recalled. “ ‘You’ve gotten yourself here. You’ve pitched in the big leagues before and trust your defense and don’t get outside of what you do.’”
No matter how raw he was, Merritt looked like a veteran in his two-hit, 4 1/3-inning performance that helped lead Cleveland to its locker room with bottles of champagne in players hands.
“He may not look the part, but he is [mature] beyond his years,” Francona said after the game. “And it's one of the most phenomenal things I've ever seen."
“To be honest,” Merritt said, “Every single one of my pitches and everything was working really well. I think the most important thing when I look back on that game that helped me was just the focus I had.”
For the first time since 1997, Cleveland was heading back to the World Series.
“I remember it was kind of a relief, in a way, that he was able to turn in that type of performance -- because then we got on to the next series and I didn’t feel as bad about letting my guys down,” Bauer said. “Not that it was on his mind this way, but he kind of had my back and helped me out a lot.”
Welcome to the family
There’s no denying the passion of the Cleveland fan base, but it’s hard to understand until you experience it first-hand.
The team celebrated in the visitor’s clubhouse in Toronto, making a handful of “shaking in your boots” references as they showered each other in champagne.
“I don’t think anyone [from the Blue Jays] really meant anything derogatory by it,” Bauer said. “But our team kind of rallied around that. … The funny thing is, [Merritt] actually wore cowboy boots to the field most days.”
Merritt boarded the plane back to northeast Ohio with the rest of his teammates, and a group of new Merritt fans waited at the airport in Cleveland to meet the ALCS hero.
“We were going to our trucks and there had to be 100 to 200 people ... right there,” Merritt said. “I remember a security guard brought me over there and it was like a mosh pit. They swarmed me and just started chanting my name and yelling. It was one of the most incredible and scary things I’ve ever gone through in my life. It was amazing.”
Weeks before, many fans hardly even knew his name. Now, they were finding any way to show their appreciation to a 24-year-old southpaw who saved their favorite team’s World Series hopes -- even if just for a few more days. What started out as a warm welcome home turned into a wedding celebration, as fans tracked down Merritt’s registry online and sent gifts to his house.
“I think when I got home, I’m pretty sure I opened up 280 gifts one night,” Merritt said. “It was pretty crazy and overwhelming. We’re always grateful for the Cleveland fans, for sure.”
Where is he now?
“Going into ‘17, I was like, ‘Man, I pitched in the ALCS. But, to be honest, [I've got a long way to go] if I’m ever gonna break this Cleveland rotation,’” Merritt said. “I still didn’t want to just be remembered as the ‘ALCS Kid,’ you know?”
The rotation was hard to crack. The team still had Kluber, Bauer, Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco, Clevinger and Danny Salazar. Though his opportunities were limited, Merritt capitalized on each chance he had to take a big league mound. In the year after his postseason debut, the lefty posted a 1.74 ERA in 20 2/3 innings (five games, four starts), but never stumbled into a permanent role.
Merritt began the 2018 season on the injured list with a left knee sprain and was unable to compete for a spot on the team’s Opening Day roster.
“That was definitely the hardest time in my career,” Merritt said. “You rely on your body for your job -- and the second it starts to fail you and you’re not as good at your job, it’s always tough.”
Merritt was designated for assignment on July 13, cleared waivers, and was outrighted back to Columbus. Even as he battled shoulder issues, he finished the year with a 3.79 ERA in 15 games (13 starts) for the Clippers. At the end of the season, he elected free agency.
“I didn’t see much opportunity for me to be a starter with Cleveland, so I decided to take myself [elsewhere],” Merritt said.
He spent 2019 in the Rays’ system -- pitching to a 7.04 ERA in 27 appearances, including 11 starts. Merritt elected free agency following the season, and he hasn't found a home since.
He is still waiting for his big break and remains confident a stable Major League career lies ahead. He may not have the most overpowering stuff on paper, but he’s seized every opportunity he’s received thus far, owning a 1.71 ERA in nine career games (31 2/3 innings).
“It definitely gives me confidence,” Merritt said. “I didn’t spend any time in the big leagues in 2019, but I still know and have confidence that I can still pitch up there for a long time. I still have time to get back up there. I think it’s cool that I haven’t wrecked those numbers yet.”
Whatever his future holds, Merritt has created a legacy not many players have a chance to experience. Forever in Cleveland history, he will be remembered as the 2016 ALCS Game 5 starter who helped clinch the franchise’s first World Series berth in 20 years. No matter what, he’ll always be Cleveland’s “ALCS Kid.”
“It’s still a special part of my life,” Merritt said. “I don’t ever want them to forget me.”