We had a day when one team started a pitcher who had made one major league start. Another sent out the youngest pitcher ever to start a playoff game. It worked out for the Cleveland Indians, who are going to their first World Series since 1997. The Chicago Cubs, meanwhile, found some offense against the Los Angeles Dodgers' young Julio Urias, as they scored 10 runs and tied up the NLCS in Game 4.
1. These boots are gonna walk all over you ... all the way to the World Series. One of the best parts of the baseball postseason is that the heroes can be your superstar cleanup hitter or a backup role player or a 24-year-old rookie with a Texas drawl and 11 innings of major league experience who made the roster only because another pitcher cut his pinkie fixing a drone. Ryan Merritt was a complete unknown, and though the Indians expressed confidence in him before the game, the truth is nobody knew what to expect from him.
Merritt admitted after the game that he was nervous. He didn't pitch like it. He's a soft-tossing, command lefty who didn't strike many guys out in the minors, and he brought his command against the Toronto Blue Jays. He threw 49 pitches in his 4⅓ scoreless innings: 22 fastballs, 12 cutters, eight changeups and seven curves. Thirty-three of the pitches were strikes, including seven pitches out of the zone that he got the Jays to chase. He did a great job moving the ball around -- outside, in, up and down -- and only two pitches missed in the middle of the zone.
The dilemma Terry Francona looked to face was how quick of a hook he might have. Merritt made that decision easy. He retired the first 10 and then got Edwin Encarnacion to ground into a double play to end the fourth. When Merritt allowed a one-out single in the fifth, Francona went to the pen for the final 14 outs.
Andrew Miller, of course, was once again dominant, as he got eight outs on just 21 pitches in what felt like an absurdly easy outing. I thought Francona might stick with Miller in the ninth with that 3-0 lead, but he went to closer Cody Allen, who gave up a leadoff double to Jose Bautista before blowing a 95 mph fastball past Josh Donaldson, striking Encarnacion out on a curveball and getting Troy Tulowitzki to pop out. (The sequence to Donaldson and Encarnacion was beautiful: three fastballs to Donaldson, three curveballs to Encarnacion.)
Miller stole the show by throwing 7⅔ scoreless innings with 14 strikeouts in the ALCS, and he earned MVP honors, but give the rotation credit as well:
Starters: 22.0 IP, 3 ER, 23 SO, 8 BB
Relievers: 22.0 IP, 4 ER, 27 SO, 3 BB
The Jays hit .201 in the series. Remarkably, the Indians hit just .168, the lowest average ever by a winning team in a playoff series:
2016 Indians, ALCS: .168
1996 Braves, NLDS: .180
1974 Athletics, ALCS: .183
1918 Red Sox, WS: .186
1986 Mets, NLCS: .189
It was good enough. As for Bautista's comment before Game 5:
Well, the Indians had a response:
Jose Bautista on Ryan Merritt: "With our experience in our lineup I'm pretty sure he's going to be shaking in his boots more than we are."— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) October 19, 2016
Shakin' in his boots pic.twitter.com/jYr6W4N6Xt— Corey Kluber (@CKluber) October 20, 2016
2. Francisco Lindor is Nostradamus. Check out the tweet from 2014, before Lindor had reached the majors:
3. Bautista might have played his final game with the Blue Jays. Andrew Marchand has the story on what could be the end of an era for the Blue Jays. Bautista and Encarnacion are both free agents. The Jays are still in a strong position with the rotation other than R.A. Dickey returning (though Francisco Liriano can take his place). The offense, however, will need some rebuilding if it loses Bautista and Encarnacion. The Jays scored 132 fewer runs in 2016 than they did in 2015, even as scoring increased across the league.
Bautista turned 36 on Wednesday and is a risky multiyear investment, considering his down year, injuries and declining defense. Still, his legacy as an all-time great Blue Jay is secure. Since his breakout season in 2010, he ranks ninth in the majors among position players in WAR. He helped return the Blue Jays to the postseason.
He got trolled hard after the game, with the Indians having fun with his "boots" comment during their clubhouse celebration. The scoreboard at Rogers Centre after the game promoted ticket sales for 2017, with pictures of Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. If it is the end, it was a fun ride.
4. Cubs Nation is revived from planning a funeral. You wouldn't be able to tell from the final score, but it was a good game for three innings. The Cubs and Dodgers were tied 0-0 through three -- after Adrian Gonzalez was thrown out at home to end the second inning when replays suggested he was safe -- and Cubs fans were more nervous about their team's lack of offense than people walking across that glass suspension bridge in China. The Cubs' four-run fourth inning off Urias began innocently enough, with an exquisite bunt single by Ben Zobrist that hugged the third-base line. Javier Baez then hit a soft fly ball off the end of his bat to left field; good pitch, bad result. Willson Contreras muscled an 0-2 fastball into left field for another hit; again, pretty good location in and off the plate. Just some tough luck for the kid.
Zobrist headed home on the hit by Contreras. Dodgers fans have assured me that Andrew Toles has a cannon, but he made his second brutal throw of the postseason when he had a decent chance to get Zobrist. He got to the ball quickly in shallow left, but his throw was 15 feet up the first-base line, which allowed Baez and Contreras to move up. Jason Heyward then produced an RBI groundout on what could have been a double-play ball, had Toles not airmailed his throw. Then came the one big mistake Urias made: With the pitcher on deck, he threw a 2-0 fastball to Addison Russell -- 1-for-25 in the postseason at that point -- and Russell launched a two-run home run to center field.
From there, the game turned into amateur hour. There were six errors. John Lackey didn't last long enough to get the win, after he walked two batters to lead off the fifth with a 5-0 lead. Two Cubs baserunners scored on a fly ball to center field. Ross Stripling couldn't get anyone out. At least this allowed Dodgers fans time to beat the traffic home.
The big takeaway: The Cubs weren't slumping as much as they had run into a bunch of really good pitching. It's certainly good news, however, that Russell and Anthony Rizzo (2-for-28 in the postseason after going 0-fer his first two at-bats) both homered and had three hits. Russell was very animated as he rounded the bases. Rizzo switched to teammate Matt Szczur's bat. The Cubs are very much alive and have Jon Lester going in Game 5.
Players that aren't emotional showing emotion fires me up. Played with Addi since high school and I've never seen him like that.— Daniel Vogelbach (@DanielVogelbach) October 20, 2016
5. Kenta Maeda in Game 5. We think. The Cubs will have a big pitching edge with Lester against Maeda, who has lasted just seven innings and walked five batters in his two starts. There was speculation that Dave Roberts could start Clayton Kershaw on short rest, but he said before the game that Maeda is the guy. Kershaw also threw on the sideline earlier in the day. Maeda has struggled, but it seems clear, given Kershaw's workload so far in the postseason, that it would be wise to give him two more days of rest and start him in Game 6 and then Rich Hill in Game 7 if needed or necessary. It didn't help that Urias' short outing meant Roberts had to empty his bullpen, so long relief could be an issue if Maeda gets bumped early.