Believeland is alive and well as the Cleveland Indians defied the odds once again to punch their ticket to the World Series.
Let it sink in, Tribe fans. The Cleveland Indians are the 2016 American League champions and will be playing in their first World Series in nearly two decades after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday evening.
A 3-0 win fueled by rookie Ryan Merritt’s supremely poised start, manager Terry Francona’s continued excellence in orchestrating the bullpen, and just enough offense eliminated the Jays in five games, and delivered Cleveland its first AL pennant since 1997.
The Indians will now host Game One of the Fall Classic in six days, Tuesday, October 25th, at Progressive Field. Coincidentally, it’s the same night that the NBA champion Cavaliers open their new season by hoisting their banner and receiving their rings. The symmetry is incredible.
The odds were stacked against Merritt. A soft-tossing left-handed rookie with just 11 career big league innings against the firepower of Toronto’s lineup looked, on paper at least, to be a disaster waiting to happen. And that’s what most in the baseball media expected to happen, as evidenced by the digital column inches and television commentary devoted to explaining how badly Game Five would go for the 24-year old.
Toronto’s Jose Bautista echoed that sentiment after Game Four, and much was made of it, but it’s a little disingenuous to pretend much of the baseball world wasn’t writing and saying the same things.
And that makes Merritt’s performance all the sweeter. He pitched within himself, changed speeds, commanded and hit his spots, and induced a whole lot of weak contact. Bautista himself tapped out weakly to third base leading off the Jays’ half of the first inning. The final line: 4.1 innings, two hits, three strikeouts, and a big, fat zero on the scoreboard. It was about as 2016 Indians as a win could be.
Still Not Shaking
Merritt had help, of course. Not much, but the Tribe’s offensive performance in this one was miles ahead of Game Four. A two-out first inning single by Francisco Lindor followed by what should have been a Mike Napoli RBI double (it was inexplicably scored an error on Toronto left fielder Ezequiel Carrera) made sure the rookie hurler was pitching from in front right out of the gate.
There’s no way of knowing if the first inning run support, the third inning solo home run by Carlos Santana, or the fourth inning solo homer by Coco Crisp had any impact on Merritt’s nerves.
Probably not, as he entered the game known for his Kluber-like demeanor and lived up to it from pitch one. But an offense that came in with a putrid .164/.224/.302 team slash line needed to put up more than the single run they managed in Tuesday’s game.
In the five game series, Cleveland scored just 12 runs. To achieve its ultimate goal of a championship, the offense is probably going to need more than that. But only probably, because…
Now the Jays are Shaking
Andrew Miller loomed over this game from the time the national anthems were performed. Toronto knew that if the Indians got a lead, Francona would move to shorten the game as he had throughout the postseason, bringing in the most dominant bullpen in MLB in October.
And that’s exactly what happened. Bryan Shaw relieved Merritt in the fifth, threw an inning, and gave way to Miller. The man who took home ALCS MVP proceeded to toss 2.2 innings, bridging the gap to closer Cody Allen. Allen gave up a leadoff double to Bautista in the ninth, but then shut the door.
In the series, that trio gave the Tribe 15.2 innings, yielding just a run on six hits (0.57 earned run average), with 25 strikeouts and a meager two walks issued. Coupled with Francona’s eschewing traditional relief roles, it was an unrivaled bullpen performance (sorry Kansas City).
Drink it in, Tribe fans. 2016 has been one wild ride, and it’s not over yet. Cleveland hadn’t seen a championship in over half a century, and now has a chance for a second in half a year. The Indians still have work to do, but the seemingly impossible dream is just four wins away.