TORONTO -- Left-hander Ryan Merritt, once a just-in-case option, is now the Indians' only option for Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against an enlivened Blue Jays club. The rookie takes the mound today in opposition to proven postseason performer Marco Estrada, with a last-minute opportunity to help the Tribe clinch its first AL pennant in 19 years.
It's a tall order for a wide-eyed pitcher with 11 innings of experience at this level. But the Indians, who couldn't punch their ticket to the World Series in a 5-1 Game 4 loss Tuesday despite an admirable effort from a short-rested Corey Kluber, arrived here by necessity. Cleveland, which hasn't lost four games in a row this season, is trying to return to the World Series for the first time since 1997.
Three-fifths of the Tribe's rotation is injured, with Trevor Bauer the latest to join Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco in the training room. It was Bauer's lacerated right pinkie finger, the victim of a drone accident Thursday, which led the Indians to add Merritt, rather than Joseph Colon, to their ALCS roster, with length in mind.
Merritt, a 16th-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft out of McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, is not a big guy, at least not for a big league pitcher. He stands 6 feet and weighs 180 pounds. He's much more a strike-thrower (108 walks in 684 1/3 Minor League innings) than a strikeout artist (471 Ks, or 6.2 per nine innings). He throws an assortment of pitches -- primarily a fastball in the high 80s and a changeup, as well as a cutter and a curveball. He profiles for all the world like an old-school crafty lefty, the kind who won't overpower you but sure can frustrate you.
Ranked the 29th-best prospect in the Indians' farm system by MLBPipeline.com, Merritt's scouting report there concludes, "His lack of premium stuff and perennially low strikeout rate limits his upside, but he has all the tools to develop into a fifth starter or swingman at the highest level."
Merritt has logged just 11 innings in his Major League career, which features one start.
"Look what we're trying to accomplish," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "We're trying to get to the World Series and this kid's made one Major League start. But I don't think you see anybody that's panicking about it. I think we're kind of excited to see how he'll do. If we didn't think he was going to do OK, we wouldn't have started him. I think it'll be really good for his career."
Merritt, 24, will become the least-experienced starter in LCS history, and just the second pitcher in postseason history to start a game with only one prior regular-season start under his belt. The other: Matt Moore, who twirled seven scoreless innings against the Rangers in a Game 1 start for the Rays in the 2011 AL Division Series at Texas.
The Indians would be thrilled to get four or five innings from Merritt, knowing they have their formidable bullpen arms in queue -- ahead of a scheduled off-day to boot. Josh Tomlin and Kluber are in line, respectively, for Games 6 and 7 at Progressive Field, if necessary.
Merritt, a native of McKinney, Texas, said all of the right things when asked about the task Tuesday evening, reeling off a to-do list with nervous energy he expects to contain when he takes the mound to the soundtrack of a deafening Rogers Centre crowd.
"I'm just going to treat it like any other game, try to go out there and have fun, relax, pitch to my strengths, not let the game speed up on me, trust in myself, trust in my defense and just go out there and compete and try to win a game for us," Merritt said, his excitement very much genuine.
Just last week, Merritt was toying with instructional league hitters in Arizona. Left off the Tribe's ALDS roster, he was sent there to stay stretched out.
"Every year," Francona told him before his departure, "they need somebody. [Something] usually comes up, so just be ready in case the opportunity presents itself."
"And this is why," said Merritt, who said he completed four innings in a game last week.
The southpaw was named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014, after posting a 13-3 record and a 2.58 ERA for Class A Advanced Carolina. He had a 2.94 ERA in eight starts for Triple-A Columbus this season before the Indians promoted him May 23. Merritt waited a week to make his big league debut, only to be optioned to the Minors the next day.
The same scene unfolded in August as Merritt was invited back for just one day. He returned again Sept. 11; less than three weeks later, he was making his first big league start in Kansas City, helping Cleveland in its fight for home-field advantage with five innings of one-run ball in a 7-2 win. Merritt struck out four and didn't walk a batter.
Merritt won't overwhelm with power, but he throws strikes, and his propensity for hanging tough at each level, after being taken in the 16th round of the 2011 Draft out of McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, has earned him considerable trust in the organization.
"I've been with him all through the Minor Leagues," Indians rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin said. "He's got good stuff, and he's going to go out there and do his job."
"He's obviously good enough to pitch, to get himself to get to this point," Kluber added. "I don't think he needs any of us trying to go out there and telling him what to do. He knows what he needs to do already."
Jane Lee has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2010. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.