ALCS Game 5 Recap: Merritt Delivers October Surprise

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Merritt Delivers October Surpries

Pete Hodges presents our ALCS Game 5 recap in which Ryan Merritt surprises everyone by giving a performance for the ages.

With his team leading the ALCS 3-0 Terry Francona went for the kill shot in Game 4, sending his former Cy Young winner and ace Corey Kluber to the mound on three days’ rest. Francona was once again managing aggressively in a bid to finish off the Blue Jays. But Josh Donaldson ignited Toronto to their best performance in the series, staving off elimination.

With a depleted rotation, Francona sent Ryan Merritt to the mound to face-off against Marco Estrada in Game 5. Merritt, a September call-up, had made just one major league start along with three relief appearances. The rookie is a starter by trade, having made 121 career starts in the minors. On the other hand, Estrada has been a bona fide stud in the 2016 playoffs: In his two starts he has twirled a combined 16 ⅓ innings, allowing three runs on 10 hits and one walk, while striking out 12. Toronto’s hopes relied on getting to to Merritt early and having Estrada settle in. This would hopefully give the Blue Jays a shot at repeating the 3-0 comeback Francona’s Red Sox team completed in 2004.

Things started off well for Toronto and Estrada, as he retired Carlos Santana via a popout and Jason Kipnis on a fly to left field. But Francisco Lindor singled on a liner to left to extend the inning. Mike Napoli then strode up to the plate and clubbed a well-hit double to left field – and the misfortune deepened for Toronto on the carom:

Left fielder Ezequiel Carrera took his eye off the ball and it bounded past him. This allowed Lindor to score the first run of the game. Finally, Estrada forced Jose Ramirez on groundout to shortstop – but the damage was done, and the score was 1-0 in favor of the visitors.

Meanwhile, Merritt cruised through his first playoff inning, and then traded perfect frames with Estrada in the second.

Roberto Perez led off the top of the third inning with a swinging strike out. Carlos Santana followed him to the plate for at-bat number two and the first baseman deposited a high fastball into the right-center field bleachers, extending Cleveland’s lead.

Estrada allowed another two-out single by Lindor after Kipnis’s second flyout, but Napoli struck out this time around.

Merritt breezed through the bottom of the third, and it seemed like Estrada would do the same through the top of the fourth – until Coco Crisp prophesized doom for the Blue Jays with a home run: his last postseason dinger came in Cleveland’s clincher against the Boston Red Sox, and that’s just how these things work. Tyler Naquin ended the top of the fourth on a popout to third base.

Donaldson finally spoiled Merritt’s perfect game with a one-out single in the bottom half of the inning, but Edwin Encarnacion promptly grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the Blue Jays’ threat and keep the score at 3-0 headed into the fifth.

Following Estrada’s second clean inning – the bottom of the fifth – Merritt allowed just his second hit of the day. A one-out single by Russell Martin brought Francona out to the mound and he called for righty Bryan Shaw. The pitching change prompted Toronto manager John Gibbons to summon pinch hitter Michael Saunders in place of Melvin Upton Jr.. The Canadian-born Saunders smacked a single right up the middle and ignited the crowd but Shaw quelled the rally and the fans with back-to-back strikeouts of Carrera and Kevin Pillar.

In the bottom of the sixth Estrada sat Lindor and Napoli down by way of the K, then retired Ramirez via a fly to left to return his offense to the field quickly

After retiring the light-hitting Darwin Barney, Shaw allowed a Jose Bautista single. Francona then decided it was time to snuff the life out of the Blue Jays season and called for his secret weapon. Andrew Miller jogged on out from the bullpen with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning to face Josh Donaldson, the reigning MVP with Joey Bats on first. And with just one pitch the inning was over thanks to a twin killing – class was in session.

For the Jays, Estrada seemed locked in as he threw his third consecutive perfect inning, but his team was down and they were running out of outs.

In the seventh Miller dispensed with strikeouts in favor of cold, ruthless efficiency. He mowed down Encarnacion, Tulo, and Martin in 12 pitches. He had thrown 13 pitches and recorded five outs – seventh inning over, Cleveland still ahead 3-0.

Gibbons then turned to right handed reliever Joe Biagini for the eighth, and he did not disappoint. After striking out Roberto Perez, he forced Santana to fly out and induced an inning-ending groundout from Kipnis.

Dioner Navarro seems like the only man on the planet – or at least in Canada – that can hit Miller. He stroked his second single off the lefty this postseason to lead off the eighth. Carrera followed by flailing helplessly at strike three, and Navarro was then erased by a forceout at second on a Pillar grounder. Barney was induced to lift a fly ball into left field for out number three. Miller had now tossed 21 pitches and notched eight outs and the eighth inning was over.

Closer Roberto Osuna started the ninth inning for Toronto in an attempt to prevent the deficit from growing larger. Linder crushed a first-pitch fastball for an automatic double placing a worried look on many Blue Jays fans’ faces. Mike Napoli also swung at  the first pitch, but he lined out to center field. A ground ball out to second base moved Lindor 90 feet away from home, but Osuna struck out Lonnie Chisenhall to end the inning.

Leading off the top of the ninth – in perhaps his last at-bat as a Toronto Blue Jay – Jose Bautista hit a full-count double off of Cleveland closer Cody Allen, giving hope to Canadian faithful. However Donaldson, the hero of Game 4, was unable to make contact on strike number three. Edwin Encarnacion followed last year’s MVP with a K of his own in what could be his last at-bat as a Blue Jay as well. Then Troy Tulowitzki popped out in foul territory to first baseman Carlos Santana to end the game, the series, and the Blue Jays season.

The Cleveland Indians are American League Champions. Andrew Miller – who is clearly the series MVP – threw 7 ⅔ scoreless innings over three appearances, allowing just three hits and striking out 15. That’s almost two strikeouts per inning! In the series clinching game he pitched 2 ⅔ innings, entering the game in the sixth and bridging the gap between the first reliever and the closer after the starter went just 4 ⅓ innings.

Terry Francona cannot be commended enough for not only using his bullpen like he did, but getting his pitching staff to buy into it AND publicly endorse the idea. It makes sense that during the season the players need structure, not only because of financial considerations, but because of health – both physical and mental. Once the playoffs come around though all bets are off – and Francona convinced Shaw, Miller, and Allen to do what was best for the team and pitch when and for long they were needed. Now the bullpen can rest up for the first World Series in Cleveland since 1997.


Follow Pete on Twitter @PeterWHodges

Featured image courtesy of Frank Gunn.

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