The Toronto Blue Jays exit the playoffs tipping their hats to the Cleveland Indians.
Ravaged by injuries to their starting rotation, the Indians still managed to shut down the free-swinging Blue Jays, tripping up Toronto for the second season one step short of the World Series.
Unheralded rookie Ryan Merritt, in only his second major league start, gave Cleveland the early pitching it needed Wednesday and the Indians bullpen did the rest, dispatching the Jays with a 3-0 victory in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
Carlos Santana and Coco Crisp homered for Cleveland, which won the series 4-1.
“It was a battle,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons. “It was a battle all series. And they shut us down. And now they move on.”
Wednesday's game was like all the other Cleveland wins. The Indians pitching was slightly better, the Cleveland hitting came at the right times and the defence was rock-solid. The Jays managed zero, one, two, five and zero runs against the Indians, who never trailed in Games 1, 2, 3 and 5.
“I know that I'm capable of doing a lot more,” said Jays slugger Jose Bautista. “They pitched great. It was tough. They seemed to make the right pitches at the right time and got us out and they never let us string base hits together and when we had men in scoring position they seemed to turn it up a notch and go to another level of execution. My hat's off to them.”
“To get us out you have to pitch well. You have to and they did,” added catcher Russell Martin.
The Jays left 31 men on base and hit 3-for-25 with men in scoring position. The Indians weren't much better, stranding 20 while hitting 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position.
Toronto hit .201 (32-for-159) in the series. Amazingly the Indians hit .168 (25-for-149) and still won - helped by six homers to Toronto's two.
Seven of the Cleveland hits came from star shortstop Francisco Lindor, who hit .368 in the series. Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders were two bright sparks for the Toronto offence, combining for 12 of the Jays' 32 hits.
Toronto, which hit 10 homers between the wild-card game and ALDS, managed just two against the Indians although it came close to adding to that total several times Wednesday. The Jays outhomered Cleveland 221-185 in the regular season.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona shuffled his pitchers like a Vegas card shark throughout the series, making all the right moves with the bullpen.
Asked how he made it all work, the folksy Francona pointed to depth.
“I also think our bullpen did some phenomenal things,” he added. “They answered the bell time after time after time. And they're going to have to continue to do that.”
Reliever Andrew Miller was named series MVP after dispatching 23 of the 25 batters he faced with 14 strikeouts.
“It's been special,” said the six-foot-seven left-hander. “It's been a lot of fun. I feel like I've said the word 'special' a million times in the last 20 or 30 minutes. But it's the truth. It's a blast to be a part of. We have one more big step, but we're going to the World Series and that's what you dream of.”
Cleveland will face either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs next, looking to erase memories of championship losses in 1954, 1995 and 1997. The Indians won in 1920 and 1948. Only the Cubs (1908) have gone longer without winning the championship.
“World Series here we come!! Congrats Boyz!!,” tweeted LeBron James, whose NBA champion Cavaliers derailed the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference final last season.
After winning the first two games at home, the Indians ignored distractions like a human rights complaint over their name and Chief Wahoo logo to take two of three in Toronto.
Toronto was denied its first trip to the World Series since 1993, when it won for the second year in a row.
“I'm sure there will be some disappointment and some grumbling and complaining about how you fell short again, but that's not coming from me,” Gibbons said. “I know what these guys did and I think it's a pretty good accomplishment. But the key is we want to take that next step.”
They may have to do that without Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, who have combined for 608 home runs and 1,804 RBIs. The two sluggers - Bautista turned 36 Wednesday and Encarnacion is 33 - are eligible for free agency and a jackpot payoff.
The 2016 Indians have proved to be a bargain, in major league baseball terms. Their 25-man opening day roster carried a combined payroll of US$96.3 million this season compared to $136.8 million for the Blue Jays. Toronto's eight highest-paid players made more than the entire Cleveland 25-man roster.
The Indians' depleted starting rotation meant that Francona had to hand the ball to Merritt, whose major league career consisted of one start, four appearances and 11 innings.
You wouldn't have known it. The 24-year-old left-hander retired the first 10 Jays he faced before leaving with one out in the fifth after giving up just his second hit.
“It wasn't an easy assignment for anybody, let alone a guy trying to make it in the game,” Gibbons said admiringly. “Tip your hat to that guy.”
With Merritt looking cool on the mound in the 4 1/3 innings needed to get to Cleveland's excellent bullpen, the Indians picked up solo runs in the first, third and fourth to pull ahead before a sellout crowd of 48,800 under the Rogers Centre roof.
Bryan Shaw (2-0), Miller and closer Cody Allen followed Merritt.
Allen gave up a leadoff double to Bautista that got the crowd on its feet. He then struck out Donaldson and Encarnacion and induced Troy Tulowitzki to foul out for his fifth save of the post-season.
The Indians rushed out of the dugout to celebrate in a moving ball of humanity by second base. The fans responded with chants of “Let's Go Blue Jays.”
Toronto starter Marco Estrada pitched well but the Indians took advantage of his mistakes. He retired 10 of 11 before exiting, with the Crisp home run the only blot on his copy book during that stretch.
Estrada (0-2) gave up three runs (two earned) on five hits with no walks and seven strikeouts in six innings.
Toronto's Brett Cecil, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna delivered three innings of one-hit relief.
Merritt, a 16th-round pick taken 488th overall in the 2011 draft, becomes only the second player in MLB history to make his post-season debut with only one regular season start, according to Elias Sports. Matt Moore did it for Tampa in the 2011 ALDS.
He gave up two singles with two strikeouts and no walks in a 49-pitch performance that featured 33 strikes.
The free-swinging Jays did not excel against slow fastballs this season. They batted .249 against fastballs less than 90 m.p.h., according to MLB.com. That was the fourth-lowest such average in the majors.
Merritt, whose last appearance was a win against Kansas City on Sept. 30, wasn't even on the Indians ALDS roster.
“He threw strikes,” said Francona. “He worked ahead, even with an 85-, 86-mile-an-hour fastball, you saw him beat their barrel a number of times. He didn't let the noise get to him. He was phenomenal. And I'm sure when all is said and done a game like this will go light years in his development, in his maturity.”
Bautista had tried to pile on the pressure ahead of the game.
“Not having seen him is something that could go either way,” he said after Game 4. “But with our experience and our lineup I'm pretty sure he's going to be shaking in his boots more than we are. So I like where we're at.”
Merritt, his feet firmly planted, induced a groundout and flyout from Bautista.
The Indians produced a pair of cowboy boots in their clubhouse celebration, suggesting they sign them and send them over to Bautista.
Cleveland, which had the second-best record in the American League this season at 94-67, swept the Boston Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
The Jays delivered a roller-coaster ride this season, drawing 3.92 million to the Rogers Centre in the process.
Toronto slumped to a 3-9 start in September before rallying to finish the month at 11-16. The team had to claw its way into post-season and things looked bright after it dispatched the Orioles in the wild-card game and swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS.
“It was a crazy year. Some ups and downs,” said Gibbons.
“It's a special group,” he added. “They come to play. They had another great year. We got to this point. We weren't able to get over the hump again. But you know what, a damn good job of getting to this point.
“I'm proud of those guys as well as the coaching staff. I know the organization is proud of them, too. Hopefully the fans are just as proud of them, because it's an entertaining group. They put on a good show. We just got beat in this series. Plain and simple."