Ryan Merritt’s performance in Game Five of the ALCS was one for the ages, but the Cleveland Indians are no strangers to seeing a rookie shine on the playoff stage.
The legend of Ryan Merritt is the latest in a long line of improbable October histrionics in Major League Baseball. The rookie pitched the Cleveland Indians into the World Series despite having logged just 11 career big league innings, and made it look easy, silencing the vaunted Toronto Blue Jays’ lineup and charming the media with his easy Texas drawl.
Cleveland has never seen a performance quite the same as Merritt’s, but he’s hardly the first rookie pitcher to etch his name into the team’s playoff annals. In fact, the last time the Indians made it to the Fall Classic, it was due, in part, to another guy who looked as if he hadn’t even started shaving yet.
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Jaret Wright was just 21 years old when the Tribe called him up from Triple-A Buffalo in June of 1997. A first round pick by Cleveland, No. 10 overall, in the 1994 MLB Draft, Wright found instant success in the big leagues and helped propel the team to an 86-75 record that was good enough to win the AL Central Division by six games.
Unlike Merritt, Wright made 16 starts for the Indians that summer before postseason play came around. The Indians won 12 of those games, as the hard-throwing right-hander posted a 4.38 earned run average and an ERA+ of 107.
Wright was not as polished as Merritt, sporting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 1.80 (Merritt’s has yet to issue a walk as a major league pitcher in the regular or postseason). But he had an electric arm, with a fastball in the mid-90s, a hard-slicing slider, and a decent changeup, and much like Merritt, was confident in himself.
In September of 2013, during Terry Francona’s first season as the Tribe’s manager and at a when Merritt was playing for the Single-A Carolina Mudcats, Wright was in town and spoke to Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com:
"“Back then, I never was nervous. I was ready for anything. I felt like I could just blow people away.”"
And in the 1997 postseason, that was exactly what Wright did. He won Game Two of the division series against the New York Yankees, then came back on three days’ rest for Game Five and won that one as well. In the two starts, he allowed five earned runs in 11.1 innings, striking out 10, and the fanbase was every bit as crazy about him as they are about Merritt now.
Wright would pitch once in the ALCS that season, taking a no-decision in a Game Four that Cleveland won on a Sandy Alomar walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth against the Baltimore Orioles.
But when the World Series against the then-Florida Marlins came around, Wright’s October legend grew exponentially before turning monstrous. He won Game Four to even the series, yielding just three runs on five hits in six inning of work, and when the Indians needed a Game Seven starter, it was Wright that manager Mike Hargrove turned to.
Wright gave up just one run on two hits with seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings that of Sunday, October 26th, and left with a lead. Every Tribe fan knows what happened next.
Had Cleveland held the lead against the Marlins, Wright’s performance would have taken on a life of its own, alongside iconic names in playoff history. That the Indians blew an opportunity to end the franchise’s World Series championship drought instead leaves it a mere asterisk.
Once upon time, Wright was the fresh face becoming an October legend for the Tribe. Perhaps that’s why Merritt’s story seems so exciting to those among the fanbase that remember 1997. He has a chance, 19 years later, to do what his predecessor could not: hoist a World Series trophy. It’s impossible to say what will happen next, but Merritt has already tied himself to Wright in Cleveland baseball history in a way that will never be forgotten.