TORONTO — This postseason has been improbable in so many ways for the Cleveland Indians. Their roster is bereft of stars save for an ace with no Q rating and a left-handed reliever whose brand is far outshined by his dominance. The most interesting thing about them this month has been their bullpen — as unsexy as it gets for all but the biggest baseball nerds. And even in Cleveland, their own town, they are the second billing behind the title-boasting Cavaliers and LeBron James.
But there is no ignoring the Indians. No dismissing their dominance so far in these playoffs or their unrelentless verve. Wednesday night, after a 3-0 win over the Blue Jays in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, Cleveland received the only validation it needs right now. The Indians are headed to the World Series. For the first time in 19 years, they will play for a championship and try to win their first since 1948.
The Indians dispatched of the Blue Jays with a familiar formula. A makeshift rotation, a commanding relief corps, and a lineup that out-slugged its reputation.
In Game 5, Cleveland leaned on a 24-year-old left-handed starter who had faced just 37 batters in the majors over his career. Ryan Merritt's last start had come in an instructional league game and even manager Terry Francona admitted Merritt was grabbed by nerves on the day of his start.
"He may not look the part," a champagne-soaked Francona said afterward, "but he's beyond his years."
From the outset, Merritt was unhittable. He beguiled Joey Bautista with a 69 mph curveball with his second pitch and struck out Edwin Encarnacion looking with another to end the first. He threw three perfect innings to start the game and did not give up his first hit until there was one out in the fourth.
The Indians did not ask him for much however, just to act as a bridge to their bullpen. Merritt left the game after 4 ⅓ innings, having allowed two hits and struck out three, and with a 3-0 lead. Though Toronto had the more fearsome offense, they were kept quiet nearly all series long. Wednesday, Mike Napoli and Coco Crisp were the ones cranking home runs off Marco Estrada to dig the home team into a hole.
And, like it was for the Red Sox before them, it was too late for Toronto. First came Bryan Shaw out of the pen for an inning, then Andrew Miller. Toronto fared better against Miller than most. Edwin Encarnacion launched a fly ball to the warning track — the first indication that Miller was, in fact, mortal this postseason. He allowed a hit and struck out only one in 2 ⅔ innings.
Yet his final numbers - 23 outs recorded, 14 by strikeout, over four games, against just three hits and no walks - were undeniable. Miller became just the fifth reliever to earn ALCS Most Valuable Player honors.
By the time Miller exited, there was a feeling of undeniability for the Indians -- only a shirtless streaker running onto the field before the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth could delay it. When Cody Allen retired Troy Tulowitzki for the final out, the eruption of emotion begun. The Cleveland Indians, American League champions, are going to the World Series. The city that titles forgot is now trying to make up for lost time.