Merritt shows Blue Jays what you don’t know can hurt you

Jose Bautista tips his cap to the play of the Cleveland Indians pitchers, meant no real disrespect and gives all credit to their opponents, they played great and took the series from the Blue Jays in the ALCS.

TORONTO — Contrary to the cliché, what you don’t know can hurt you.

That’s the lesson the Toronto Blue Jays—and especially Jose Bautista—can take away from their season-ending 3-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series Wednesday at Rogers Centre.

Bautista and the Jays didn’t know Ryan Merritt, the 24-year-old left-hander who was the least-likely starting pitcher you’ll see in a game of this magnitude.

The statistical record was unkind to Merritt. He was the only Cleveland pitcher who didn’t figure in the decision. Bryan Shaw gets credit for the win, Andrew Miller the hold and Cody Allen the save. Those three big names combined for 14 outs. Merritt got 13 by his lonesome. In those 4.1 innings he gave up just two hits, walked none. Okay, Merritt hasn’t carved out a place in history but what he did in Game 5 has all the makings of a terrific trivia question a few years hence.

Teams don’t get to the post-season by relying on a kid with one career major-league start and three other appearances. Maybe someone in that profile would be added to a playoff or series roster simply to come out of the bullpen for mop-up innings in a blowout. The fact that Merritt was on the mound at the start of the game is a by-product of desperation—injuries depleted the Indians’ rotation. Manager Terry Francona turned to Merritt because when he turned Merritt was the only one there.

Okay, he wasn’t exactly there. No, while Francona’s squad was sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, Merritt was in the Arizona Instructional League. His last time on the mound in an approximate game situation: Merritt faced players on the Indians’ own development-league roster a week or so ago.

In the run-up to what may be his last game in a Jays uniform, Bautista crowed about the opportunity that presented itself, namely the chance to extend the ALCS by teeing off on a kid called up from Columbus. Quoth Joey Bats: “Not having seen him is something that could go either way, 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.”

This will be forever more the definition of hubris, what the Jays will use in prospect orientation to teach the perils of giving opponents bulletin-board material. Maybe it doesn’t motivate the other guys but you still can look like an ass.

Merritt denied that he ever shook in his boots and didn’t read too much into Bautista’s words. "I heard it but I didn’t let it affect me or get to me," he said.

One could see how Bautista and others could grow over-confident about the prospect of the rookie from Texas.

Merritt physically fit the role of the whipping boy, too. He stands six feet—maybe. When Cleveland drafted him in 2011 in the 16th round, Merritt might have weighed 155 pounds. All the hard gym work across six years and he could still fight as a light heavyweight. This wasn’t a raw kid with impressive tools, a big-time heater, a big-out pitch. No, his fastball tops out at 89 mph—again, this is being generous.

Merritt wasn’t statistically intimidating either. His numbers in Columbus don’t shout out "Prospect of the Year" so much as "potential journeyman": 11-8 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.249 WHIP. Yeah, there were a couple of gaudy seasons back in A ball but, well, that’s just not stuff you want to lean on in October, at least outside of the instructional league.

So it was that the Jays were in against a kid they had never seen, not even in spring training. If they needed a scouting report … well, there’s no "if" about it … they could have turned to their own general manager, Ross Atkins, who came over to the Blue Jays from Cleveland this past off-season.

Back in 2014, Atkins raved about Merritt to a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Said Atkins: "There’s very little doubt in my mind Ryan will be a major league starting pitcher," said Atkins, then Indians vice president of player development. "He has the makings of three major league average pitches. His breaking ball is the one pitch that has the most room for improvement. His competitiveness, his athleticism and his fastball command, that plays in the major leagues. If he’s going to participate in the majors, or if he’s going to be a starter and an innings eater, that remains to be seen. If you watch a catcher’s glove, you would think you’re watching a major league pitcher. He commands all his pitches."

Clearly Bautista and Atkins didn’t talk about Merritt when Francona added him to Cleveland’s roster before the ALCS.

When Merritt threw the last of his warm-up pitches, he looked like a bundle of nerves. Between each toss, he stretched his left arm high over his head, once, sometimes twice. He picked at the shoulder of his uniform, adjusted his hat and had a bunch of facial tells that suggest he’d be a mark in poker games on the team bus. It didn’t evoke Mark Fidrych so much as Mike Hargrove, the former Cleveland first baseman whose similar antics in the batter’s box earned him one of the greatest nicknames in MLB history: the Human Rain Delay. With Hargrove the routine unnerved pitchers and took them out of their rhythm. With Merritt, however, it looked like he was the one unnerved.

"The emotions out there were kind of crazy at first," he admitted. "I was a little nervous but it settled down, just trusted myself and stayed within myself.”

In fact, he was thoroughly up to the moment.

For the Jays and their fans it was frustrating waiting for a fireworks display that never happened. They thought Merritt was a match they could light and he simply sprayed them with a water hose. Through the first two innings, against the heart of the order, Merritt threw first-ball strikes to each Blue Jays batter, never falling behind in the count. And it was command of his pitches that got it done. Not heat, not big breaking balls, nothing as deceptive as Miller’s slider. He just worked the edges of the strike zone over and over.

"I definitely got confidence after [getting] through the first inning," Merritt said. "You see where you’re at with your pitches. You say, okay, I can get these guys out and we got an early lead.”

The only well-hit ball came off the bat of Josh Donaldson, who lined a single to centre in the fourth. At that point Cleveland was already out in front 3-0. The other hit came in the fifth on a bloop single to the struggling Russell Martin—"struggling" understates .065 post-season batting average, which Martin walked to the plate with. As it turned out, that came on Merritt’s 49th pitch and Martin was the last batter he faced. Terry Francona called Shaw out of the bullpen even though the next Jays batter up, Melvin Upton Jr., struck out against Merritt his first time through the order without so much as taking the bat off his shoulder.

Again, the rookie didn’t figure in the decision but Miller put it down in another category. Said Miller: "I would imagine it’s the game of his life."

Cleveland’s pitching coach Mickey Callaway tried to put it all in context. Said Callaway: “He probably didn’t even know their names."

This proved to be a case of what Ryan Merritt didn’t know couldn’t hurt him, couldn’t even touch him.

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