The Cleveland Indians will start rookie Ryan Merritt in Game Five of the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays with a trip to the World Series on the line. Just as everyone expected, right?
Is it really that surprising that the Cleveland Indians will be handing the ball to rookie Ryan Merritt to start Game Five of the American League Championship Series? A team that has been befallen by every type of bad karma that could be thrown at them, that has defied the expectations of the experts, that has persevered when many others would have crumbled?
Merritt has thrown 11 innings in his major league career, making one start and three appearances out of the bullpen. When he steps onto the mound at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday, he will, according to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, be the least experienced starter in a playoff game since Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore started in the 2011 ALDS after logging just 9.1.
The 24-year old wasn’t even supposed to be on the ALCS roster. He was working at Cleveland’s player development complex in Goodyear, Arizona, staying sharp just in case, when word of Trevor Bauer’s drone repair accident came out. Now Merritt will be making the biggest start of his life to this point in the biggest game the Indians have played this season.
Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista, who is 4-for-24 in the series, spoke about facing Merritt after the Blue Jays’ Game Four victory, and was confident to say the least.
“With our experience in our lineup I’m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are.”
And yet, the southpaw did not seem fazed about the moment when talking to reporters, saying:
“I think I’ll be ready for it. 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.”
While some media and fans appear to be hitting the panic button, Merritt’s inexperience may in fact serve as a positive. Toronto has never faced him before, and because he’s pitched so little in the big leagues, there isn’t much of a book on him. Jays manager John Gibbons admitted as much.
“He’s left-handed. That’s all I know right now.”
It should also be noted that Toronto was also just 10-14 against lefties outside the AL East this season.
Merritt is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his four-seam fastball and changeup more than 80 percent of the time. He also mixes in a curveball and cutter, though neither is considered a plus pitch.
Think of him as a left-handed version of Josh Tomlin in that he will not overpower anyone, but commands the strike zone. In 143.1 innings at Triple-A Columbus this season, he walked just 23, and did not issue a free pass in his time with the Tribe, which Indians’ skipper Terry Francona believes bodes well for him.
“He’s going to throw strikes, so he’ll give himself a chance. And we can bail him out if we need to, but I think he’ll be OK.”
And it’s not as if Cleveland is asking him to throw nine innings, either. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller did not pitch on Tuesday, and with Thursday being an off-day regardless of Game Five’s outcome, the bullpen will once again be in an all-hands-on-deck state of mind. If Merritt can do what he did in his September 30th start at Kansas City, in which he allowed a run on three hits in five innings, he will have done his job.
Of course, no matter how well Merritt pitches, if the Indians don’t score any runs, it won’t matter. The Tribe has put up just nine runs in the four ALCS games thus far, with an abysmal .164/.224/.302 team slash line.
Merritt is a wild card in this series, which is fitting in a season in which Cleveland has dealt with so many unforeseen variables. That the arm that could send the club to the World Series wasn’t even supposed to be here is exactly the sort of storyline the Indians have been about for the past six and a half months. If Merritt isn’t panicking, neither should we.