Rookie helps Indians blank Jays, clinch AL pennant
Toronto — For the Cleveland Indians, the script was the same every game — hope for the best from whoever they started, then count on Andrew Miller and the bullpen to close it out.
That plan seemed especially dicey in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, with lightly used Ryan Merritt on the mound.
But out of nowhere, the rookie delivered.
Merritt coolly kept the Indians ahead until reinforcements arrived, and Cleveland earned its first trip to the World Series since 1997 by blanking the Toronto Blue Jays 3-0 Wednesday.
The 24-year-old lefty defied expectations, shutting down the powerful Blue Jays before exiting in the fifth inning. Thanks to a most unlikely pitching performance, a most unexpected team won the ALCS 4-1.
Cleveland, which has never hosted a World Series opener, will play Game 1 at Progressive Field on Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers.
Manager Terry Francona’s team will try to augment what’s already been a scintillating year in Cleveland after LeBron James and the Cavaliers earned the city’s first major pro sports championship since 1964.
The Indians’ title drought dates to 1948. In 1997, they let a one-run lead get away in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 and lost to the Florida Marlins in the 11th.
“We always said if we could do it with this group it would be so special because this is as close to a family feel as you can get in a professional setting. So for that part of it, it is beyond feeling good,” Francona said.
The Dodgers led the Cubs 2-1 going into Game 4 of the NLCS on Wednesday night. Cleveland didn’t play either club this season.
Miller, acquired from the New York Yankees in a midseason trade, was selected the ALCS MVP as the Indians took their sixth pennant.
“I feel like I’ve said the word ‘special’ a million times in the last 20 or 30 minutes. But it’s the truth. It’s a blast to be a part of,” Miller said.
With all of 11 major league innings under his belt — and only one start, on Sept. 30 — Merritt took the mound and looked just like a seasoned vet. The lefty retired the first 10 batters and allowed a mere two hits before being pulled after 4 1/3 innings.
“I know they were counting on me,” Merritt said. “Before the game, they came and told me they had my back, everybody had my back, good or bad. So that takes some pressure off, and I just went out there and pitched and trusted my team.”
Merritt got taps on his heart and hat from teammates when he left the mound. Then it was up to Cleveland’s tireless relievers to hold a three-run lead against the wild-card Blue Jays.
Miller again did most of the heavy lifting, going 2 2/3 innings before Cody Allen worked the ninth for a save . Winning pitcher Bryan Shaw tossed an inning before Miller came in.
Carlos Santana and Coco Crisp homered for the Indians.
With starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer dealing with injuries, the Indians kept defying the odds.
Cleveland overtook defending World Series champion Kansas City and topped a $196 million Detroit team to win the AL Central, then put an abrupt end to Big Papi’s career, sweeping David Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox in the Division Series.
The Indians stayed on a roll in the ALCS, shutting down the banging Blue Jays. Cleveland won despite hitting .168 in the series, with slick-fielding shortstop Francisco Lindor leading the way in going 7 for 19.
Toronto lost in the ALCS for the second straight year.
“I’m sure there will be some disappointments and grumbling and complaining about how you fell short again, but that’s not coming from me,” manager John Gibbons said. “Because I know what these guys did, and I think it’s a pretty good accomplishment. The key is we want to take that next step one of these days. Hopefully, it’s next year.”
Merritt — a Texas native drafted in the 16th round by Cleveland in 2011 — hadn’t pitched in a game since his late September start, although he’d gotten some work in this month in the instructional league at the Indians’ spring training complex in Arizona.
A day after Toronto averted a sweep, the crowd at the roaring Rogers Centre expected the Blue Jays to roll over the rookie.
Maybe the Blue Jays did, too.
“With our experience in our lineup, I’m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are,” Toronto slugger Jose Bautista said after Game 4.
After the Blue Jays were eliminated, Bautista took a different tone.
“He seemed to make the right pitches at the right time,” Bautista said. “Hats off to him.”
After the game, Cleveland players chanted “boots” in the celebration, urging Merritt to pull cowboy boots from his locker and shake them.
Merritt struck out three batters in the first two innings — all looking — and didn’t allow a baserunner until Josh Donaldson’s one-out single in the fourth. After Russell Martin’s bloop single with one out in the fifth, Francona leaned again on a bullpen that soaked up 8 1/3 innings in a Game 3 win Monday.
Shaw pitched an inning, and Miller came on with one out in the sixth and a runner on. Donaldson bounced into a double play on Miller’s first pitch, and the tall lefty made it through the seventh and eighth with little trouble before giving way to Allen.
Cleveland took a 1-0 lead in the first when Mike Napoli doubled and left fielder Ezequiel Carrera misplayed the ball off the wall for an error. Lindor scored from first on the play.
Santana and Crisp added solo shots in the third and fourth off Toronto starter Marco Estrada to put the AL Central champions up 3-0.