The Cleveland Indians blanked the Toronto Blue Jays, 3-0, on Wednesday afternoon to claim the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series for the first time since 1997.
Ryan Merritt channeled his inner Gene Bearden and gave the Indians nearly half a game of shutout baseball. Supported by a first inning run and a pair of home runs later, the young southpaw handed the game over to the dominating Indians bullpen, who got the final 14 outs to send the city of Cleveland to yet another world championship series in 2016.
A lopsided matchup on paper pitted Toronto’s veteran right-hander Marco Estrada against the young left-hander Merritt, set to appear in his fifth Major League game and just his second start at the big league level. Estrada, who allowed just two runs in his complete game Game 1 loss, was good, but the Indians pitching staff was better.
The Indians got to Estrada in the first to give Merritt a little breathing room. After the first two hitters were set down, Francisco Lindor singled to left. Mike Napoli followed with a double off of the wall in left-center, scoring Lindor as Ezequiel Carrera had trouble fielding the ball cleanly.
Merritt struck out three of the first six batters he faced before the Indians stepped back into the box again in the third. After a strikeout by Roberto Perez, Carlos Santana sent a deep drive over the wall in right to put the Tribe on top, 2-0.
Cleveland made it a commanding 3-0 lead in the fourth. With two down against Estrada, Coco Crisp delivered his second home run of the postseason with a solo blast to right.
Merritt allowed his first hit with one out in the fourth as Josh Donaldson continued his strong stretch in the playoffs with a single. But the knock did not hurt the Indians’ left-hander as Merritt got a double play ball to Lindor at short.
Having faced the minimum through four and one-third, Merritt gave up a single to Russell Martin and manager Terry Francona went to his bullpen, bringing on Bryan Shaw. After a pinch-hit single by Michael Saunders, Shaw struck out Carrera and Kevin Pillar swinging.
Estrada turned the game over to his bullpen after six innings, still trailing 3-0. Lindor ended a streak of 13 straight Indians retired with his leadoff ground rule double to start the ninth, but the Indians offense made no other noise.
With the ball in the grasp of the relief staff, they did not need to.
Andrew Miller took over for Shaw in the bottom of the sixth after a one-out single from Jose Bautista. Miller has been so effective in the postseason that he only needed one pitch to get two outs, getting Donaldson to ground into a double play. He needed just 12 pitches to get through the seventh and returned for the eighth, giving up a pinch-hit single to Dioner Navarro to start the inning before setting down the next three in order.
Cody Allen came on for the ninth and gave up a leadoff double to Bautista before striking out Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion swinging. Troy Tulowitzki, Toronto’s last hope, popped up a 2-2 pitch in foul territory that the first baseman Santana settled under and secured before dropping to his knees with his hands raised high as the Indians dugout emptied out in celebration.
Shaw earned his second win of the ALCS while Allen got the save, his third of the series.
For the Tribe, it marks their first World Series appearance since 1997 and just the sixth in franchise history. Cleveland won its first two trips in 1920 and 1948, but has fallen short in 1954, 1995, and 1997.
“We’re going to the World Series,” said Miller during the celebrations. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
MERRITT MAKES MEMORABLE MARK
In just his fifth Major League start, Merritt has etched a place in Indians lore forever with his gutsy performance on the mound. He may not have pitched late into the game, but with the strength that is the Cleveland bullpen, he did not need to.
Merritt worked four and one-third innings, the second longest outing of his brief Tribe career, allowing two hits and issuing no walks while facing just one batter over the minimum in his time in the center of the diamond. He struck out three, throwing first pitch strikes to 12 of the 14 batters that he faced in his improbable performance.
“I know they were counting on me,” said Merritt after the game. “Before the game, they came and told me they had my back, everybody had my back, good or bad. So that takes some pressure off, and I just went out there and pitched and trusted my team.”
There was no shaking in the young Texan’s boots.
ESTRADA LOSES AGAIN TO TRIBE
Estrada took his second loss of the series and for the second time gave the Blue Jays a quality start. He allowed just two earned runs in each of his starts, a span of 14 innings, but each time he took the mound in the ALCS, his team failed to score a run.
Estrada’s official line was six innings pitched with 92 pitches thrown (62 for strikes). He allowed three runs, just two of which were earned as a result of the Carrera error in the first, on five hits. He struck out seven and did not walk a batter.
Miller was rightfully named the ALCS Most Valuable Player following the game after another dominant performance on the mound. He earned his third hold of the series and fourth of the postseason after firing two and two-thirds innings of relief, a season high, while needing just 21 pitches to notch eight outs.
In the series against the Blue Jays, Miller worked seven and two-thirds innings of scoreless baseball across four of the five games, allowing three hits with no walks. He struck out 14 of the 25 batters that he faced during the ALCS, earning the three holds and one save in the series.
He became the fourth reliever to ever be named the MVP of the ALCS, joining Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, and Koji Uehara.
THE WAITING GAME
The Indians will return home to Cleveland and will have to wait to know their World Series opponent until at least Saturday as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs will play at least six games in the National League Championship Series.
Baseball will resume for the Indians on Tuesday night as the city of Cleveland hosts Game 1 of the World Series for the first time in the team’s 116-year history. No starter has been announced for Cleveland, but ace Corey Kluber would logically be the choice to go.
The World Series will kick off Tuesday at a time yet to be announced from downtown Cleveland.
Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel