TORONTO — Unheralded rookie Ryan Merritt, in only his second major league start, gave Cleveland the early pitching it needed and the Indians bullpen did the rest Wednesday, bundling the Toronto Blue Jays out of the playoffs with a 3-0 victory in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
Carlos Santana and Coco Crisp homered for Cleveland, which won the series 4-1.
The Indians head to the World Series, looking to erase memories of losses in 1954, 1995 and 1997. They won in 1920 and 1948. Only the Cubs (1908) have gone longer without winning the championship.
The Indians” injury-ravaged starting rotation meant that manager Terry Francona had to hand the ball to Merritt, whose major league career consisted of one start, four appearances and 11 innings.
You wouldn”t have known it. The 24-year-old left-hander retired the first 10 Jays he faced before leaving with one out in the fifth after giving up just his second hit.
With Merritt looking cool on the mound in the 4 1/3 innings needed to get to Cleveland”s excellent bullpen, the Indians picked up solo runs in the first, third and fourth to pull ahead before a sellout crowd of 48,800 under the Rogers Centre roof.
Each team managed six hits.
The game was like all the other Cleveland wins. The Indians pitching was slightly better, the Cleveland hitting came at the right times and the defence was rock-solid. The Jays managed zero, one, two, five and zero runs against the Indians, who never trailed in Games 1, 2, 3 and 5.
Toronto, which hit 10 homers in the wild-card game and ALDS, managed just two against Cleveland although it came close to adding to that total several times Wednesday. The Indians found the fence six times against the Jays.
Bryan Shaw (2-0), Andrew Miller and Cody Allen pitched the rest of the way for Cleveland. Miller continued his mastery over Toronto hitters, giving up a single to pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro in 2 2/3 otherwise perfect innings.
Allen pitched the ninth, the action slightly delayed by a shirtless fan who invaded the field before disappearing at the bottom of a scrum of security near second base.
The Indians closer gave up a leadoff double to Jose Bautista that got the crowd on its feet. He then struck out Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and induced Troy Tulowitzki to foul out for his fifth save of the post-season.
The Indians rushed out of the dugout to celebrate in a moving ball of humanity by second base. The Rogers Centre crowd responded with chants of “Let”s Go Blue Jays.”
Toronto starter Marco Estrada pitched well but the Indians took advantage of his mistakes. He retired 10 of 11 before exiting, with the Crisp home run the only blot on his copy book during that stretch.
Estrada (0-2) gave up three runs (two earned) on five hits with no walks and seven strikeouts in six innings.
Merritt, a 16th-round pick taken 488th overall in the 2011 draft, becomes only the second player in MLB history to make his post-season debut with only one regular season start, according to Elias Sports. Matt Moore did it for Tampa in the 2011 ALDS.
He gave up two singles with two strikeouts and no walks in a 49-pitch performance that featured 33 strikes.
The free-swinging Jays did not excel against slow fastballs this season. They batted .249 against fastballs less than 90 m.p.h, according to MLB.com. That was the fourth-lowest such average in the majors.
The Indians official Twitter account celebrated Merritt”s outing with a photo of the pitcher alongside one of actor Kit Harington from “Game of Thrones.” “Ryan Merritt=King in The North?” asked the tweet.
Merritt looked at ease in a 1-2-3 13-pitch first inning that saw his pitches range in speed from 69 to 86 miles per hour. He dispatched the home hitters in order again in the second and third, needing just 31 pitches to go through the entire Toronto order.
Donaldson finally provided some offence against Merritt with a one-out single in the fourth. That got the Cleveland bullpen up, as Francona got help ready. But Encarnacion, who thought he should have had a walk on the 3-1 pitch in the at-bat, hit into an inning-ending double play one delivery later.
Russell Martin got on with one out in the fifth on a bloop single that a sprinting Lonnie Chisenhall was unable to get to in right field. That ended Merritt”s exceptional afternoon.
Michael Saunders singled off Shaw to put men on first and second. But Shaw struck out the next two batters.
Bautista”s one-out single in the sixth drew Miller to the mound. “Miller Time!!!!!!” tweeted Cavaliers star LeBron James.
The ace left-hander got Donaldson to hit into a double play, unsuccessfully challenged by the Jays, to snuff out the threat. Three more outs quickly followed in the seventh.
Cleveland went ahead with two outs in the first on Mike Napoli”s double. Francisco Lindor, who singled to get thing going, was helped getting home by left-fielder Ezequiel Carrera fumbling the ball when it came off the fence. He was tagged with an error.
Santana made it 2-0 with a solo homer to right field in the third. The ball, which left his bat at 103 miles per hour, travelled 402 feet with Bautista essentially just turning around and watching it land in the seats.
With two outs in the fourth, Crisp sent an Estrada changeup 373 feet into the Indians bullpen to increase the lead.
Toronto”s Brett Cecil, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna delivered three innings of one-hit relief.
The Blue Jays, which started the day 6-1 in their last seven elimination games, is the first team since the 2004 Red Sox to force a Game 5 when trailing 0-3 in the series. Of the other teams that managed to do it, three lost in the fifth game and two were dispatched in six.
Merritt, whose last appearance was a win against Kansas City on Sept. 30, wasn”t on the Indians ALDS roster.
“I think justifiably he”s a little nervous,” Francona said before the game. “I think the nerves will lessen when the game starts, just knowing him the little bit I do and from talking to people that do know him.”
Bautista did his bit to pile on the pressure.
“Not having seen him is something that could go either way,” he said after Game 4. “But with our experience and our lineup I”m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are. So I like where we”re at.”
Merritt, his feet firmly planted, induced a groundout and flyout from Bautista.
Cleveland, which had the second-best record in the American League this season at 94-67, swept the Boston Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
The Jays delivered a roller-coaster ride this season, drawing 3.92 million to the Rogers Centre in the process.
Toronto slumped to a 3-9 start in September before rallying to finish the month at 11-16. The team had to claw its way into post-season and things looked bright after it dispatched the Orioles in the wild-card game and swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS.
“it”s a very colourful team. A lot of big personalities,” said manager John Gibbons. “It”s a fun group to be around. There”s not a lot of dull moments, I”ll put it that way. They show up every day to play, good or bad. There”s a lot of veterans on it who have been through it before. And they know how to take care of business.”
For the Jays, this season be an end of an era with Bautista and Encarnacion poised for free agency and a huge payday.
The 2016 Indians have proved to be a bargain, in major league baseball terms. Their 25-man opening day roster carried a combined payroll of US$96.3 million this season compared to $136.8 million for the Blue Jays. Toronto”s eight highest-paid players made more than the entire Cleveland 25-man roster.
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