Growing up in Celina, Texas (approximate population 6,000), Ryan Merritt and his close friend Troy McCartney looked for ways to entertain themselves during boring summer days.
"He has a big, white rock driveway," McCartney said. "We would go out, pick up rocks. We still do it. You'd have to hit a tree 20 yards away, 10 times. The rocks would have all sorts of irregular movement. I'd hit the tree 10 times in 50 throws. He'd hit the tree 10 times in 15 throws."
In only his second major league start, Merritt threw 4⅓ scoreless innings, giving up only two hits and striking out three before being pulled by manager Terry Francona.
Merritt, whom friends and coaches describe as being on the quiet side, was unfazed by the circumstances of Game 5, perhaps because he had been in the situation before, albeit on a much smaller scale.
"When Ryan was a freshman, we were playing Mineola in the regional playoffs, best-of-3, and the lefty who was supposed to pitch had an injury," said McCartney, who was both a high school and junior college teammate of Merritt's. "Ryan went out to warm up, and the other team was watching him the whole time. They thought it was a joke."
Merritt came back to the dugout and told one of his coaches, James Evans, "they're all over me."
Undaunted by the circumstances, Merritt pitched the best he ever had, a one-hit shutout.
"Ryan is a mental giant," McCartney said. "He never lets things bother him."
The cool, calm approach took him through McClennan Community College, in Waco, Texas, where he went 10-3 with a 1.13 ERA in 15 starts in 2011. Most who dominate at that level do so with overwhelming strikeout numbers. Merritt managed 93 in 96 innings, but more notably, he walked only 13.
But though Merritt won the Indians' Bob Feller Award as their top minor league pitcher in 2014 (when he led the Carolina League with 160 innings and an 0.95 WHIP), he didn't make top prospects lists. His fastball never topped 90 mph. Before this season, he ranked as the team's No. 22 prospect per Baseball America.
Nonetheless, he climbed the ladder to Triple-A this year and started strong, netting a brief recall to the majors that earned him 4⅓ innings of scoreless mop-up work against the Rangers. He got a second look for an inning in early August and pitched well upon his return to the minors, a 2.68 ERA in his last six starts with the Columbus Clippers, where his season-end ERA was 3.70.
The Indians gave him one more look, two-thirds of an inning of relief in early September, followed by 17 days off and a five-inning, one-run effort against the Royals in his first career start.
Still, Merritt didn't make the playoff roster until Trevor Bauer's pinkie was injured by his drone. But his former college coach, Pete Mejia, predicted he'd be unfazed. "I'm betting on him not being intimidated," he said.
You might have even heard Francona tell a TV audience in the third inning, "The most important thing is he's being himself."
And perhaps that had something to do with a little help from his friend, now a coach, who was following the game during football practice.
"I texted Ryan earlier today," McCartney said. "I said 'Just be you. You'll be great.' "
Much like the rocks star he was a dozen years ago.