TORONTO (92.3 The Fan) – There won’t be any pressure on Ryan Merritt when he takes the mound in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
Nope. Not at all. Just the weight of his club needing one win to reach the World Series. That’s not that daunting right?
Oh, and he’ll be facing one of the American League’s best lineups, coming off of a game in which they finally started to feel good and look like themselves.
“With our experience in our lineup I’m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are,” Jose Bautista told reporters following their Game 4 win over Cleveland, cutting the Indians’ lead in the best-of-seven series to 3-1 in the process.
And Bautista won’t be the only one expecting Merritt to get exposed.
With 49,000 people at Rogers Centre and the entire country of Canada conceivably rooting for him to fail, Merritt will have to start by reminding himself of one very important thing when he takes the mound on Wednesday afternoon in Toronto.
“Just breathe,” he said.
From there, it will be all about simplifying the approach.
“Concentrate on the mitt,” Merritt added. “Concentrate on Roberto [Perez] and pitch.”
Easier said than done. But if he focused on anything else, he might pass out.
How many other rookies have been asked to do what Cleveland needs the young lefty to accomplish in Game 5? He has just 11 innings in the Major Leagues under his belt. He wasn’t even supposed to be on the ALCS roster until the finger injury to Trevor Bauer caused some concern.
But here he is. From essentially an unknown outside the Indians’ organization to pitching in a potential World Series clinching game for his ball club.
Starting in a hostile environment, facing a club trying to keep their season alive, Merritt may be facing a situation more difficult than any pitcher in a similar situation has been asked to tackle. Ever.
But he can’t think like that.
“To be getting this opportunity is awesome,” Merritt said. “It’s good that the team trusts me to go out there tomorrow to try to win a baseball game for them.”
Unfortunately, the Indians don’t have many options left. Bauer’s drone mishap left the Tribe with two completely healthy starting pitchers. Corey Kluber was forced to pitch on short rest in Game 4.
Danny Salazar is hurt. So is Carlos Carrasco. Nothing about what the Indians have been asked to do in the postseason has been ideal.
So, why would their Game 5 starter be any different?
“I think he understands the task at hand,” reliever Cody Allen said. “He’s just going to go out there and pitch. That’s why he’s good. He just competes. He’s just going to go out there and try to make the pitches. He’s not going to worry about the atmosphere, or who’s in the box, whatever it is, he’s just going to try to make quality pitches when he can.”
If Merritt is to have success in Game 5, perhaps Toronto’s unfamiliarity with the soft-tossing strike-thrower can become a positive. Outside of his start against the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 30 — and outing which clinched home field advantage for the Indians in the postseason — no team has had an extensive look at the lefty in his Major League career.
“That would be some of the hope,” manager Terry Francona said. “I think when you face a pitcher that you haven’t seen, I would give the benefit of doubt to the pitcher. Saying that, he’s a lefty going up against a pretty good lineup. But, I told him, I said, ‘You don’t have to go nine. Just go inning by inning and get them out.’ The good thing is he’s going to throw strikes, so he’ll give himself a chance, too.”
Francona also believes that five-inning outing against the Royals was critical to Merritt’s ability to believe he could get big league hitters out.
“He doesn’t beat himself,” Francona said. “He’s just a little younger, but he throws strikes. You’re going to have to beat him. He won’t beat himself. That’s not so bad.”
But on Wednesday, the talk will end. And the proof will be in the results.
Whether Merritt pitches well is anyone’s guess. But his teammates are saying all the necessary things heading into Game 5 to give him the confidence to perform.
The rest will be on his young shoulders.
“I think the guy is a warrior out there,” Perez said. “He’s not overpowering, but he gets outs. Tomorrow, we’ve just got to pitch. They’ve got a tough lineup over there, we’ve just got to execute pitches. That’s the bottom line.”
All that’s on the line is a trip to the World Series. No sweat.