Ryan Merritt is an unknown; a top percentile athlete; a playoff starter. Ryan Merritt is a means to an end.
That end is Condrew Aller, the unified embodiment of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen that I just willed into existence. (Throw in Bryan Shaw if you’d like.) This “means to an end” description applies to any non-Corey Kluber starter for Cleveland right now, but especially so for Merritt.
He entered our collective consciousness a few days ago, when Terry Francona mentioned him as an option to start Game 5. We all assumed he misspoke. Armed with an 86 mph fastball, an 83 mph cutter, a slow curve, and a seldom-used changeup, Merritt poked, prodded, and dotted his way through the Blue Jays' lineup for 4 â…“ innings. Cleveland could have asked for five, perhaps, but multiple scoreless innings more than accomplished the goal.
This is the advantage of having a great bullpen, to be sure, but also of possessing a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series. Francona went for the jugular in Game 4, turning to Kluber on three days’ rest, but he did so knowing he could empty the pen (again) in Game 5 with a day off looming.
Opposite the generic-fill-in-turned-playoff-hero was Marco Estradaâ€•formerly something of a generic pitcher with a sub-standard fastball himself. Estrada pitched well, for the most part, but fell prey to his career-long bugaboo: the longball. Mike Napoli narrowly missed a dinger in the first, Carlos Santana unleashed a swing that was just like the ocean under the moon in the third, and Coco Crisp swatted one in the fourth. That was the extent of the damage.
It might not have been enough in a regular-season game (or a regular-year game, if you’re Joe Buck). It was enough here, in this game and in this year for this Cleveland team.
The truth is this: the Indians exploited the differences between the postseason and regular season. Starters have to go deeper during the regular season because rest days aren’t as available and the leverage is lower in general. Merritt facing Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and others for a third time would have been asking for trouble regardless of the upcoming schedule or the importance of the game.
Sure, he worked inside with his fastball, but it wasn’t hard to imagine a Jays batter straightening one out or, perhaps more likely, blistering a missed spot caused by fatigue. The lesser parts of the Cleveland bullpen might not have been up to the task of bridging the gap, either. But again, this was not a regular-season gameâ€•and Francona knew it.
The plaudits for Francona are well deserved. He’s been more open-minded than any manager this side of Joe Maddon, and he’s been more aggressive since the pieces have been in place. Credit is due to the pitchers for the execution of the concepts Francona applies as well; Miller has been nearly flawless and the rest of the bullpen pales only in comparison to Miller. Still, it’s worth noting the risk involved in the strategy, despite its success.
If Merritt is tagged early or often, or it becomes a high-scoring but competitive game, the bullpen—just recently employed for 8 â…“ innings—must be emptied once more. This is mitigated by the aforementioned pending off day, but with Kluber having thrown in Game 4, Cleveland would be throwing Josh Tomlin and presumably Kluber, again on short rest. This is not an insubstantial risk, but it is one that’s more palatable with a 3-1 series lead, where you can allow the odds to play out a little more than usual.
It’s difficult to watch this series end and not view it as indicative of each team’s short-term outlook. Cleveland is a team on the rise, with a budding superstar in Francisco Lindor, a dynamic rotation (when healthy), and a currently-one-of-his-kind reliever in Miller. Meanwhile, Toronto will see Bautista, Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil, R.A. Dickey, and Joaquin Benoit become free agents five days after the World Series.
Toronto’s president of baseball operations Mark Shapiro has a strong reputation within the industry, but also oversaw just four 90-plus-win seasons in his 15 years in Cleveland. Whether he’ll have the payroll in Toronto that he lacked in Cleveland, or whether he was brought in because he’s familiar with working on a tight budget will be seen over the next few years. As it stands, the Blue Jays seem less likely of the two teams to be here next year.
As for the Indians, they will be here next week, hosting the World Series. The irony? The Indians are Shapiro’s old team, yes, but also this: they’re on the grand stage in part because they made an un-Shapiro-like move in acquiring Andrew Miller. Now those are some circumstances.