TORONTO (92.3 The Fan) – Ryan Merritt, with a trip to the World Series on the line, will face the powerful Toronto Blue Jays offense in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday. No pressure at all.
Here are some random thoughts about Merritt and where the Cleveland Indians stand, up 3-1 in the ALCS, heading into the important matchup in Toronto:
• Ryan Merritt entered the press interview room on Monday, eyes rather large and clearly nervous. He sat in a chair to the right of the podium, as manager Terry Francona explained Cleveland’s rotation changes for the ALCS. In the meantime, Merritt examined the room, both legs bouncing up and down.
• When it came time for Merritt’s turn at the podium, Francona stayed in the room to watch the young lefty. He said he wanted to see how the lefty handled the situation. Or maybe he wanted to be there just to save him. But there won’t be any way of saving the southpaw on Wednesday night.
• Luckily for the Indians, Merritt wrapped up his press conference by admitting he’s far more comfortable on the mound than in front of a microphone. Fair enough. That’s really all that matters now.
• There is no way of knowing what to expect from young Merritt. The 24-year-old is charged with trying to end the ALCS and keep it from going back to Cleveland — which in the process, would send the Indians back to the World Series for the first time since 1997.
• But has a pitcher with his experience level — he owns just 11 Major League innings to his name — ever been asked to accomplish something this grand on this level in front of this type of crowd? 49,000 fans will be rooting for him to fail.
• One of the few people in the crowd who knows anything about him is his fiancée, Sarah, who will be in attendance on Wednesday afternoon at the Rogers Centre.
• The Indians have done everything they feel they can to make him comfortable. They’ve said nice, confident things about the inexperienced southpaw. They’ve tried to pump up his confidence. Catcher Roberto Perez even waited until Wednesday morning to chat with him about any sort of game plan, attempting to not put too much pressure on the young man.
• However, confidence is hard to come by as an unbiased observer, witnessing how nervous Merritt is in every media setting since being announced as one of Cleveland’s potential starters in this series earlier this week. This is all new to him. If not for his start against the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 30, a big league mound would be pretty foreign to him, too.
• It’s sort of fitting, though, that if the Indians are to advance, it will have to come as unconventionally as one would expect for a team that hasn’t done much by the book lately.
• To advance to the World Series, keep the series from advancing to a pressure-packed Game 6 at Progressive Field and do the improbable, the Tribe will need a rookie pitcher with little experience to quiet one of the league’s best offenses over multiple innings and outpitch the opposition’s no. 1 starter, Marco Estrada. It’s a good thing the Indians have majored in doing the unthinkable this season. Because that scenario is about as unexpected as it gets.
• Two things could really help Merritt as long as he is in Wednesday’s one: One, Cleveland could get him an early lead. Nothing does more for the psyche of a young hurler than a few early runs. A little action early against Estrada might not be bad for the offense’s confidence as well. The Indians, despite having a 3-1 lead, have scored just nine runs over the first four games of the ALCS.
• Two, some early success will be key for Merritt. The Rogers Centre will be loud. Certainly louder than it was at the start of Game 4, when it appeared several Toronto fans were pretty reserved entering the game trailing 3-0 in the best-of-seven series. This time, the building will probably be shaking from the start. And they’ll be looking for a reason to blow the roof off the dome.
• Perhaps Merritt can take something out of Bob Wolcott’s book, the rookie pitcher who started Game 1 of the 1995 ALCS for the Seattle Mariners against the Indians. Cleveland scored a run and loaded the bases in the top of the third against the young righty, but Wolcott limited the damage by inducing an inning-ending double play hit by Paul Sorrento. Wolcott finished by allowing just a pair to Cleveland’s powerful offense over seven innings of work.
• In reality, the Indians probably won’t be looking for seven innings from the 24-year-old southpaw. If Cleveland can get 4-5 innings of solid work from Merritt — and the lefty faces the lineup twice in the process — manager Terry Francona could elect to begin setting up his bullpen as early as the fifth inning.
• The only good thing to come from their Game 4 loss was the ability to stay away from Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, who are now prepared to cover multiple innings in relief. And Francona might just try to get 3-4 innings out of his two ace relievers if the Indians have a lead.
• Given all of this, has any team with a 3-1 lead ever been viewed in a worse light? Cleveland’s Game 4 loss really seemed to flip the public perception of this series.
• But in the end, if you think any of this can be predicted prior to Game 5, you probably haven’t been watching baseball for very long. And what a story this might become.