Cubs manager Joe Maddon likes to put a saying — often an inspirational quote — on the clubhouse chalkboard before games. Earlier today, I asked Toronto’s John Gibbons what message he’d put on his club’s chalkboard leading into ALCS Game 5. His response was, “We let Bautista do that.”
In retrospect, “You can’t predict baseball” would have been apropos.
The Indians weren’t supposed to beat the Blue Jays this afternoon. Not at raucous Rogers Centre with an obscure, and inexperienced, rookie on the mound. Ryan Merritt had all of 11 big-league innings under his belt, and in terms of prospect helium, he’s not exactly Julio Urias. Let’s be honest, there was a greater chance that Merritt would crack than dazzle. Bautista went as far as to say the youngster would be “shaking in his boots.”
Before the game, Terry Francona admitted that Merritt was nervous. The Cleveland skipper also predicted that those nerves would lessen once the game started.
They did. In the first inning, the kid induced weak ground balls from Bautista and Josh Donaldson, then fanned Edwin Encarnacion. “Merritt” chants were started in the stands, but they never gained steam. Neither did Blue Jays bats; they continued to fizzle. Merritt set down the first 10 he faced, and when he finally did give up a hit, it was followed by a double play.
Through four innings,the bullpen phone had remained eerily quiet. Cinderella still hadn’t called for her slippers. The Indians led 3-0.
One out into the fifth, the rookie with the pedestrian fastball surrendered a soft single, and was lifted. He’d done his job. Expected to do little, Merritt instead was receiving congratulatory handshakes after retiring 12 of the 14 hitters he faced. The game was now in the capable hands of the Cleveland bullpen. Then it was over.
The Indians are on to the World Series, and Ryan Merritt — unknown, unheralded, unfazed — is one of the biggest reasons. Baseball.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.