The casual Cleveland Indians fan, one who might have blinked and missed his debut and subsequent returns to the Major League roster throughout the season, learned the name of Ryan Merritt rather quickly during the American League Championship Series when the rookie left-hander made a Game 5 start and contained a power-packed Toronto Blue Jays lineup in one of the most unexpected contributions of October.
Now, Merritt waits for another chance to pitch on the big league stage with a starting rotation that should be back to health and full of five quality veteran starters who will block his path to the Show.
Merritt’s efforts won the affections of the Tribe faithful, who managed to not only hunt down the wedding registry for his pending nuptials, but filled up the gift requests of the couple in thanks for his contributions to the Indians winning the American League pennant. It was the highlight in what was likely a surreal year for the 24-year-old left-hander, who was only getting his first real regular season action at the Triple-A level when the season began.
The Indians drafted Merritt in the 16th round of the 2011 draft out of McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. After the ink dried on his first professional contract, he got some work in with the team’s Arizona League affiliate (making four relief appearances) and made 14 starts the next season at short-season Mahoning Valley.
He went 6-9 in 2013, working in 24 games (23 starts) for Class-A Lake County before a pair of starts with the High-A Carolina Mudcats. He spent all of 2014 with the Mudcats, putting together an impressive 13-3 campaign with a 2.58 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 25 starts. It earned him a promotion to Akron, where he went 10-7 with a 3.51 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 22 starts to start the 2015 season.
He ended that year with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, winning two of his five starts before working in the International League postseason.
Merritt was one of many potential starting pitching options waiting down Interstate 71 for the Indians in the case of an emergency this past season. He was 3-4 in his first eight starts for the Clippers with a 2.94 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP when he got the call to Cleveland on May 23. He made his MLB debut, a relief appearance, a week later on May 30 against Texas and limited the Rangers to just one hit while striking out two over four and one-third innings of work in his first relief appearance since 2013. He was optioned back to Columbus after the game, but not as a result of the effort he gave the club.
Back in the minors, he made ten starts around a seven-day disabled list trip while dealing with mid-back tightness. Just two of the outings were quality starts as he was hit with a 5.13 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP while giving up eight homers in the ten-game span of 54 1/3 innings.
Despite the tough go, he was summoned again to help the Indians’ depleted bullpen and worked a perfect inning of relief on August 4 against Minnesota before returning after the game to the Clippers and jumping right back into the rotation there on August 7.
He returned to Cleveland for good on September 11, winner of four of his final six starts with the Clippers while posting better overall numbers than his previous trip to the state capital. Back with the Indians, he made a relief appearance on September 12 against the Chicago White Sox, allowing one run on two hits in two-thirds of an inning. He did not appear again until the final game of the month, when he made a spot start against the Kansas City Royals and held the reigning World Champs to a run on three hits with four strikeouts and no walks over five innings to earn his first Major League win.
He got the call again in the most unlikely of spots in the ALCS. A thinned out Indians rotation, depleted by a slew of injuries, called upon the young left-hander to make the Game 5 start. Staked to a 1-0 lead before he took the mound, Merritt retired big bats Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson on groundouts to start the bottom of the first before he struck out Edwin Encarnacion. The second inning consisted of a fly out from Troy Tulowitzki before back-to-back strikeouts of Russell Martin and Melvin Upton. Now with a 2-0 lead, he retired the side in order in the third and with a three-run advantage heading into the bottom of the fourth, he gave up his first base runner on a one-out single by Donaldson before Encarnacion grounded into a double play.
Merritt returned for the fifth in line for the win, but after a fly out from Tulowitzki, Martin reached on a single and manager Terry Francona went to his bullpen. The group maintained his 3-0 shutout to clinch the American League. In his first MLB postseason appearance, Merritt faced one over the minimum, striking out three Blue Jays and giving up just two base hits.
In addition to his stellar postseason appearance, Merritt went 11-8 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 24 starts with the Clippers with a pair of complete games and one shutout and was 1-0 in four games with the Indians with a 1.64 ERA and 0.55 WHIP in four games (one start).
So what becomes of Merritt now? Barring any sudden moves by the Indians front office, the Cleveland starting rotation should be occupied by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin once again.
Merritt could hope for a spot in the team’s bullpen as a LOOGY or a lefty long man as Andrew Miller is the one sure southpaw lock for the pitching staff, but several returning (Kyle Crockett and Shawn Morimando) or new options (Tim Cooney, Edwin Escobar, and Hoby Milner) are coming to spring camp vying for a spot in the bullpen as well.
Given how quickly the Indians rotation succumbed to injury in the final month of the season, it would be all the more likely that Merritt and several other starters-turned-relievers to see action in Cleveland this season (including Mike Clevinger, Cody Anderson, Adam Plutko, and Morimando) will head back to Triple-A to keep their arms stretched out in the event that the Indians need a spot starter for a doubleheader or make-up date or, worst case scenario, a starter is knocked out for a period of time with an injury.
Merritt’s strong efforts in his fifth professional campaign this season made sure to keep his name at the top of that list of candidates to rely on, and being one of the few left-handers at the top of the farm system could give him a leg up on the competition to add a different look to the Indians pitching staff.
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