TORONTO -- Although the Indians hold a comfortable 3-1 lead in the ALCS, it suddenly feels like the Blue Jays are in control of the series. They won Game 4 on Tuesday to stay alive (TOR 5, CLE 1), and the Game 5 pitching matchup is very much in their favor. Nominal staff ace Marco Estrada is starting against rookie Ryan Merritt.
Merritt, a 24-year-old southpaw with 11 big-league innings under his belt, is starting Game 5 because the Indians simply have no one else. Carlos Carrasco (hand) and Danny Salazar (forearm) are not on the ALCS roster due to injury, and Trevor Bauer can't go because he sliced his pinky open repairing his drone last weekend. The injury forced him to exit Game 3 in the first inning.
"Accidents happen. You can't control them," Merritt said when asked about Bauer's injury before Game 3 earlier this week. "We trust each other, that even if one person goes down, we still got enough to back it up and still be all right."
Merritt had a 3.70 ERA in 24 starts and 143 1/3 innings in Triple-A this year before getting called up. He made three relief appearances and one start with the Indians, and in that start he held the defending World Series champion Royals to one run on three hits and no walks in five innings. Merritt struck out four and needed only 62 pitches to do it.
"My first start in Kansas City, obviously that went well for me," Merritt said. "And it gives me confidence that I can get outs as a starter in the major leagues. Just pitching that game, getting that opportunity gives me a lot of confidence going forward. And the next season, next game."
Merritt will be only the second pitcher in history to make his second career start in the postseason, joining current Giants left-hander Matt Moore. Moore allowed two hits in seven shutout innings against the Rangers in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS, when he was with the Rays.
Moore then and Merritt now are very different pitchers, however. Moore was the best pitching prospect in baseball at the time and he was a pure power pitcher. Back then he threw 96-98 mph and it looked like he was playing catch. Moore had easy gas before having Tommy John surgery two years ago.
In their midseason update, MLB.com ranked Merritt as the No. 29 prospect in Cleveland's farm system, so while he is indeed a prospect, he's not a great one. He wouldn't crack their top 30 list had the Indians not traded four prospects for Andrew Miller at the deadline. Here's a snippet of MLB.com's scouting report on Merritt:
What Merritt lacks in stuff he makes up for with pitchability and excellent command. The left-hander adds and subtracts from his upper-80s fastball and complements it with an above-average changeup. He knows how to use his curveball effectively while also mixing in a below-average slider simply to keep hitters guessing and off balance ... 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.
He's a finesse pitcher, no doubt about it. PitchFX says Merritt's fastball topped out at 91.4 mph and averaged 88.6 mph during the regular season, so he won't blow anyone away. The Indians have been attacking the Blue Jays with breaking balls all series and that figures to continue in Game 5.
The ever-confident Jose Bautista said Merritt is "going to be shaking in his boots" in Game 5 because the Blue Jays have such a great lineup and the Rogers Centre will be rocking, but the Indians have no concerns.
"I think he's OK," manager Terry Francona said following Game 4. "He talked to [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] a little bit the scouting report this morning, just to give him a chance to watch the game and also digest some of the stuff they talked about. I think he's okay. I think he'll be fine."
During his news conference before Game 3, Merritt joked he was more nervous being up at the podium talking to reporters than he ever has been out on the mound. "None of what's going on fazes him," reliever Dan Otero said later.
The Indians aren't looking for Merritt to do what Moore did for the Rays in 2011. They would happily take seven shutout innings, don't get me wrong, but their plan for Game 5 involves getting maybe five quality innings from Merritt, then turning the game over to a rested Miller and Cody Allen.
Cleveland's master plan for the postseason was a power rotation fronted by Corey Kluber with Carrasco and Salazar behind him. Injuries sabotaged that plan and they've had to improvise, and so far it has worked. Game 4 on Tuesday was their first loss this postseason. It was also the first time they trailed in a game since the first inning of Game 1 of the ALDS against the Red Sox.
The Blue Jays won Game 4 convincingly and now they get to face a rookie in Game 5. It's hard not to think momentum is on their side, if you believe in that sort of thing. The Indians still lead the series 3-1 though, and while no one seems to expect Merritt to fare well in Game 5, they made it clear they have all the confidence in the world in him.
"It's an honor to be pitching in the playoffs," Merritt said. "It's my first year in the major leagues and it's a great feeling that Terry Francona trusts me to go out and try to win a baseball game for them in the playoffs."