For the sixth time in their 116-year history and the first time since 1997, the Cleveland Indians are American League champions. On Wednesday afternoon in Toronto, they eliminated the Blue Jays from the ALCS with a 3-0 victory in Game 5. They’ll await the winner of the Cubs-Dodgers NLCS and will host Game 1 of the World Series at Progressive Field in Cleveland next Tuesday, Oct. 25.
The Indians won the World Series in 1920 and '48, making their championship drought the sport’s second-longest active one. They lost the Series in 1954, ‘95 and ‘97.
Here are three quick thoughts on the clincher.
1. Merritt badge
With a rotation missing its Nos. 2, 3 and 4 starters due to injuries, Indians manager Terry Francona tabbed Ryan Merritt, a 24-year-old lefty, for the start in Game 5. Merritt took the mound at Rogers Centre with just one start and three relief appearances totaling 11 2/3 big league innings under his belt, less experience than any postseason starter since the Rays’ Matt Moore, who had pitched 9 1/3 innings in one start and three relief appearances when Tampa Bay turned to him in the 2011 Division Series against the Rangers.
In the wake of the Blue Jays’ Game 4 victory, slumping slugger Jose Bautista was almost dismissive of the rookie, telling reporters, "With our experience in our lineup, I'm pretty sure he's going to be shaking in his boots more than we are."
But Merritt didn’t look as though he were shaking at all in the first inning, when he needed just 13 pitches to retire Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion, with Encarnacion caught looking at a 71 mph curveball for strike three. Using his curve and his changeup, the latter his best pitch, Merritt set up his well-placed 85-88 mph fastball, using it to get Russell Martin and Melvin Upton Jr. looking for strikeouts in the second, and he coasted through the third on just five pitches.
Merritt didn’t yield his first hit until one out in the fourth inning; after he retired Bautista for the second time, Donaldson followed with a single to centerfield. Encarnacion got ahead in the count 3-0 and thought he had ball four on the fifth pitch of the at-bat—a fastball on the outside edge of the plate—but home plate umpire Mike Everitt called it a strike. On the next pitch, last year's AL MVP grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Merritt finally departed with one out in the fifth, after Russell Martin blooped a single into shallow rightfield. He’d thrown 49 pitches, 33 for strikes, with just four swings-and-misses but three strikeouts.
The Indians claimed to have chosen Merritt for the start instead of the slightly more experienced Mike Clevinger because he was more stretched out, but they may have had an eye toward one of Toronto’s weaknesses:
Blue Jays hit .243 vs 4-seam fastballs below 90 mph. That ranked 26th in MLB this season.— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) October 19, 2016
The Blue Jays went 0-for-3 when putting Merritt’s fastball into play, but that understates the mileage he got out of the pitch. Of his 17 other fastballs, 13 were strikes—one on a swing-and-miss, two that were foul balls and 10 that were called strikes.
2. Just enough offense
After falling behind for the first time in 53 innings early in Game 4 en route to their first loss of the postseason, the Indians wasted little time in getting the upper hand in Game 5. Facing Marco Estrada in the first inning, Francisco Lindor hit a two-out single and Mike Napoli followed with a double off the leftfield wall, with Jays outfielder Ezequiel Carrera bobbling it for an error to boot, as Lindor scored. In the third inning, Carlos Santana added another run with a solo homer, his second of the series, and then Coco Crisp hit a solo shot of his own in the fourth. According to Statcast, the blasts were estimated at 402 feet and 373 feet, respectively:
Crisp, a 15-year veteran who started his big league career with Cleveland in 2002, has hit four homers since being acquired from the A’s on Aug. 31, and the last three were particularly well-timed. His two-run shot off the Tigers’ Buck Farmer on Sept. 26 helped the Indians clinch the AL Central title, his two-run homer off the Red Sox’s Drew Pomeranz on Oct. 10 helped the team close out the Division Series and now this one in the ALCS clincher.
During the regular season, the Blue Jays outhomered the Indians 221 to 185, but in the series, Cleveland outhomered Toronto 6-2 and outscored them 12-8.
Estrada ended up working six innings, allowing five hits and three runs (two earned) while striking out seven without a walk. Unfortunately for him, the Blue Jays didn’t score in any of the 14 innings he pitched in the series.
3. The 'Pen, Again
Bryan Shaw had been the lone Cleveland reliever to struggle this postseason. He replaced Merritt in the fifth inning on Wednesday sporting a 5.79 ERA in 4 2/3 postseason innings—admittedly a small sample—and immediately yielded a single to Michael Saunders to bring the tying run to the plate. Shaw then rebounded to strike out both Carrera and Kevin Pillar.
After Shaw allowed a one-out single to Bautista—just his second hit in 17 at-bats in the series—Andrew Miller did what Andrew Miller has done all postseason: crush the opposition’s dreams. His first-pitch fastball to Donaldson turned into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play, albeit one that had to be survive a replay review because Carlos Santana’s foot came off the bag by the end of the play.
Miller worked two more scoreless frames on just 20 pitches, allowing a lone single and surviving the Blue Jays’ closest thing to a scoring threat when Encarnacion’s towering seventh-inning shot to leftfield ended up a warning track flyout; had the Rogers Centre roof been open—which according to FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris adds three to five feet to fly balls—it probably would have been a home run, but then so might have other flies such as Napoli’s double.
For the series, Miller made four scoreless appearances totaling 7 2/3 innings, allowing just two hits while striking out 14 without a walk, easily earning series MVP honors. For the postseason, he’s thrown 11 2/3 scoreless innings with just four hits, two walks and 21 strikeouts.
In the ninth inning Bautista, an impending free agent who might have been playing his final game as a Blue Jay, greeted closer Cody Allen with a double into the leftfield corner, his first extra-base hit since his homer in Game 2 of the Division Series. Allen recovered to strike out both Donaldson and Encarnacion, the latter another free-agent-to-be, then induced Tulowitkzki to foul out to Santana between home and first for the final out.
The Indians’ bullpen was the story of the series, holding the Blue Jays to five runs (four earned) in 22 innings—equaling the number thrown by the starters—while striking out 27 and walking just three. Francona did a masterful job of using his relievers aggressively to overcome the team’s shortage of starters, particularly in Game 3, when Trevor Bauer left after throwing just 2/3 of an inning due to the gash on his pinky that reopened. This will be Francona’s third trip to the World Series; he won titles with the Red Sox in 2004 and '07.