With the Blue Jays season on the line for a second straight day, veteran pitcher Marco Estrada will start for Toronto, hoping to take another step toward a miraculous comeback in the American League Championship Series.
The Cleveland Indians, on the other hand, looked over their injury-ravaged pitching staff and chose little-known Ryan Merritt – a rookie who has thrown a total of 11 innings in the big leagues – to pitch Game 5.
Having earned their first win of the ALCS on Tuesday, the Jays are right back at it on Wednesday, trying to send the best-of-seven series back to Cleveland. Estrada, Toronto’s steady 33-year-old change-up specialist, hopes to extend his impressive postseason showing so far.
Estrada has thrown more innings than any of the Jays’ pitchers in this postseason so far – 16 1/3 over two games – a win over Texas and a loss to Cleveland. The right-hander has a postseason ERA of 1.65, the best among Toronto starters in these playoffs. His 12 postseason strikeouts also lead the staff.
“I don’t have much for you guys – it’s another game and we’ve got to win,” said a matter-of-fact Estrada. “My job is to try to go nine innings and give up zero runs. So it doesn’t matter if it’s the last game of the season, the first game – you want to do that every time out.”
Estrada was the losing pitcher in Game 1 last weekend in Cleveland, despite an almost flawless performance outside of one poorly executed changeup in the sixth inning that Francisco Lindor turned into a two-run, game-winning homer. Estrada gave the Jays eight innings and struck out six batters that day, allowing just those two runs on six hits.
“It’s an extremely talented lineup over there. You may say that there aren’t a lot of household names. I think there are,” Estrada said. “There’s a lot of talent over there. Guys just put the ball in play. And they’re all pretty quick. They make those little plays happen.”
Cleveland, one win from a trip to the World Series, will lean on soft-spoken 24-year-old Merritt, a lefty with just a single Major League start on his resume. He has appeared in just four MLB games, and he’s spent much of this season pitching for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.
The young southpaw fidgeted nervously on the podium while addressing reporters in Toronto. He was asked what makes him more nervous – pitching or being at the front of a packed interview room.
“This, all day,” said Merritt with a nervous laugh, concluding his news conference.
The Jays don’t have the benefit of much study material on Merritt. “What do I know about him? That he’s left-handed,” Jays manager John Gibbons said with a chuckle when asked for his scouting report on the youngster.
The Jays need three more wins if they want to join the 2004 Boston Red Sox as the only major-league teams ever to rally from down 0-3 to win an ALCS. The Jays are banking on another solid outing from Estrada, but it’s more difficult to predict how much run support the team can provide him.
Runs didn’t always accompany his steady performances during the regular season – evidenced by the fact that Estrada was 9-9 despite posting a 3.48 ERA over 29 starts. The man who regularly confounds batters with one of the best changeups in baseball is 3-2 in five career postseason starts with an ERA of 2.59. Two of those wins came in Toronto’s playoff run last year.
“When the team needs something, he comes through,” Gibbons said. “You’ve see him do it again and again … I would expect him to be very, very good.”