TORONTO -- It figured to be a blowout. The powerful Blue Jays lineup had finally snapped out of its ALCS-long slump in Game 4, setting up a Game 5 matchup with Indians rookie left-hander Ryan Merritt.
The 24-year-old southpaw had made exactly one major league start coming into Wednesday's game. His fastball tops out at 87 mph. He hadn't even looked all that impressive at Triple-A Columbus this year, allowing 156 hits and striking out just 92 batters in 143 1/3 innings, with a 3.70 ERA. Jose Bautista got an early start on his 36th-birthday steak dinner, tossing some red meat to reporters by mocking his Game 5 opponent.
"Not having seen him is something that could go either way," Bautista said of Merritt following Toronto's Game 4 win Tuesday. "But with our experience in our lineup I'm pretty sure he's going to be shaking in his boots more than we are. I like where we're at."
He probably should have been a lot more scared. Merritt didn't merely fare well against the Jays ... he made them look foolish. The kid who just two weeks ago was pitching in Arizona instructional league to stay fresh in case the Indians needed him steamrolled Toronto's power bats, retiring the first 10 batters he faced, needing just 49 pitches to record 13 precious outs. Cleveland's lights-out bullpen took it from there, tossing the final 4 ⅔ innings without allowing a run, and securing the Indians' third shutout win in its eight playoff game.
The 3-0 final score looked like an egregious typo, given Merritt's modest pedigree and track record. The Indians made him the 488th overall pick in the 2011 draft, not expecting much from a pitcher who relied exclusively on finesse, at a time when the sport was evolving into an army of 99-mph fastball-wielding behemoths. But finesse, when properly executed, can still win in baseball. And just as soft-tossing right-hander Josh Tomlin snuffed out Boston's big bats to help close out the ALDS, Merritt lulled Toronto's hitters to sleep to end the ALCS, punching that glorious ticket to the World Series.
Merritt's day was an exercise in pitch sequencing mastery. Facing the three best hitters in the Jays lineup to start the game, Merritt opened his first career playoff start by painting an 83-mph changeup near the inside corner for strike one against Bautista. He then snapped off a curveball that should have sonnets written about it, a 70-mph bender that came spinning down from the heavens, crossing the plate knee-high on the outside corner and causing Bautista to swing out of his boots ... or at least his cleats. Merritt then chucked an 85-mph fastball that missed outside.
With Bautista now geared up for either slow stuff or nibble pitches, Merritt challenged him with a fastball out over the plate and up. On paper, that 86-mph offering should have been upper-deck fodder. But with Bautista not knowing whether the next pitch he'd see would be up, down, inside, outside, or a cruel knee-buckler of a curve, he could do no better than fouling off the pitch to stay alive. The final pitch of the at-bat was a cutter down and in, prompting Bautista to roll over harmlessly on a groundout to third.
After dispensing of Bautista, Merritt then went on to retire Josh Donaldson on a tapper to second, then punching out Edwin Encarnacion looking at an 86-mph fastball. That was a consistent theme throughout Merritt's outing. Every time he'd get two strikes on a hitter and catcher Roberto Perez would put down one finger, Merritt would reach down for a little extra, adding another mile or two to his "heater." In his case, that little extra took the pitch all the way up to 86-87 mph.
You could get mesmerized watching playback of Merritt's Game 5 pitches. His shifty changeup vexed Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki. His darting slider made mincemeat of Donaldson and Encarnacion. His gorgeous curve left a trail of devastation in its wake. All those pitches made his fastball look much faster, and tougher to hit. Watch him put all those diverse offerings together, and you'd swear you were watching a 15-year veteran, not a kid who looks like he's barely old enough to shave.
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway praised Merritt extensively after the game. Calling him "the unflappable Ryan Merritt," Callaway pointed to the rookie's pinpoint command and precocious ability to change speeds and attack every inch of the plate as keys to his success.
"He was dotting every fastball, executing every curveball," Callaway said. "This kid, he throws strikes. He's in like the 99th percentile in the year, from Triple-A to the big leagues, in throwing his breaking ball, his changeup for strikes, and I figured he would have a pretty good outing if he could do that."
Cleveland manager Terry Francona's piled on praise of his own, with a dash of incredulity. When a reporter asked Francona after the game if he could have reasonably expected that kind of performance from Merritt, he replied with a question of his own: "One hit?!" asked the skipper, still marveling at what had happened. Yes, Merritt had actually allowed two singles in his 4 ⅓ innings of work, but they were inconsequential moments during a game of pitching mastery.
"He was phenomenal," said Francona, adding, "what he did was above and beyond his years."
When Merritt reached the podium, he fielded a slew of questions from a pack of reporters even more surprised at what had just gone down. Did anyone offer pregame advice before Merritt became just the third pitcher in major league history to make his first career playoff start after logging fewer than five regular-season starts in his career?
"Tito did," Merritt replied, referring to his future Hall of Fame manager, who continued his master class in bullpen usage by squeezing eight outs from Miller instead of saving him for what would have been a lower-difficulty three-out save chance. "He said, 'No matter what, good or bad, when you go out there we're behind you.' He said, 'I'm behind you. Your team is behind you. Everybody is behind you. So just go out there and be yourself, control what you can control and just have fun, just enjoy it.'"
One last piece of enjoyment would come during the game, from total strangers. Thanks to some Internet sleuthing by Indians fan Ben Ferree and Sporting News writer Jesse Spector, Tribe followers were able to find Merritt's wedding registry. With nuptials set for January and Merritt pitching the game on his life at the perfect time, Cleveland's faithful started buying up all the irons, ice cream scoops, and colanders they could, as a token of thanks to their new unlikely hero.
Later tonight, after all the champagne's gone and he's had a moment to catch his breath, the kid from McKinney, Texas will be able to pull out his phone, and see how one night captivating the sports world ensured that he'll never need to buy a muffin pan for the rest of his life. Playoff baseball can be just that weird, and just that wonderful.
Thanks to PitcherList.com for providing research help for this article.