Merritt gets ball first in early Indians spring rotation

ALCS surprise star will start Saturday vs. Reds; Salazar, Carrasco, Clevinger, Bauer up next

Merritt gets ball first in early Indians spring rotation

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Ryan Merritt pitched himself into Indians lore during the 2016 postseason, taking the ball in the American League Championship Series and helping push Cleveland into the World Series with a brilliant performance in Toronto. It was a whirlwind October for the lefty, who arrived to Tribe camp this spring with a sudden wealth of experience.

The stage will be much smaller on Saturday -- and the crowd not nearly as raucous as Rogers Centre during Game 5 of the ALCS -- but Merritt is nonetheless excited about his next start for the Indians. The left-hander will take the ball for the Tribe in its Cactus League opener against the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.

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"It's a pleasure to be able to go out and start the first game," Merritt said on Wednesday morning.

Merritt's scoreless start

After Merritt, the Tribe's probable starters for the following four games (in order) will be Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer. Merritt is tentatively scheduled to log two innings, which is the same for the starters in the next three games. Bauer is slated to work two innings in a simulated setting on Saturday before logging three in his Cactus League debut on March 1 against the Mariners.

In the early portion of the Cactus League slate, the Indians plan on taking things slow with ace Corey Kluber and righty Josh Tomlin, who shouldered the heaviest load among the starters during the postseason. Both right-handers will stick to simulated games before making their spring debuts on March 6 and 9, respectively.

"Kluber, Tomlin, Bauer, they all threw a lot of innings there at the end of the season," Merritt said. "I think it's good that I get to go out and start the first game and give them a little rest. It's still awesome that [manager Terry Francona] is giving me the chance to go out there and pitch that first game."

Merritt, 25, turned in a 3.70 ERA in 24 starts with Triple-A Columbus last season, but he also had a four-game stint with Cleveland during the regular season. In that limited exposure to the big leagues, the lefty fashioned a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings. In the playoffs, Merritt was a surprise addition to the rotation for Game 5 of the ALCS, and he responded by turning in 4 1/3 shutout innings in the clinching win over the Blue Jays.

For the upcoming season, Merritt understands his role is to be ready at a moment's notice.

With a five-man rotation of Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer and Tomlin, the Indians are not looking for a starter this spring. While Merritt, Clevinger and Cody Anderson could contend for a bullpen job, it is more likely that they begin the season in Triple-A to serve as depth for the Major League starting staff. Last year's extreme circumstances taught Merritt about how valuable that depth is to a contending club.

"I think my role is to be there when they need me," Merritt said, "whether that's coming up for a doubleheader or if somebody's tired or whatever. My role is to be a starter and come up and start when they need me to win games for them."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.