PORT CHARLOTTE — Being straight up about it, Ryan Merritt was a little uneasy going into the game, a 24-year-old making his second big-league start facing the mighty Blue Jays in Toronto in the potential clinching game of the 2016 American League Championship Series.
“I was nervous,’’ Merritt said. “Scared. Whatever. All the emotions at once.
"But not shaking in my boots, no.’’
You may not notice Merritt these days as he sits quietly in the Rays spring clubhouse, hoping for the chance to pitch his way from a minor-league contract on to the team.
You may not recall much else from the lefty’s first eight pro seasons, and parts of two in the majors, with the Indians.
But there’s a pretty good chance you remember him as the “shaking in his boots” guy from that 2016 series.
And maybe for the five-star Internet trolling that followed after Merritt shut down the Jays. Plus the remarkably creative show of fan appreciation that ensued, evidenced by boxes of towels, knife sets and coffee makers that stacked up.
“It ended up,’’ Indians manager Terry Francona said, “being a really cool story.’’
Their rotation already missing injured starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, then with Trevor Bauer out after slicing his pinky repairing a drone, the Indians needed help. They felt their best move, with some margin in a 3-1 series lead, was to turn to Merritt, the skinny Texan with a fastball that rarely got out of the mid-80s and 11 whole innings of big-league experience.
Toronto slugger Jose Bautista, flexing with confidence after the Game 4 win, wanting to further stoke the already raucous home fans and maybe get into Merritt’s head, offered what turned out to be a not-so-hot take:
“With the experience in 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.”
What Bautista and the Jays didn’t appreciate was that Merritt liked where he was at, too.
Dispatched to Arizona to keep in shape during the division series, Merritt was added to the ALCS roster for depth, then positioned to make a start, which was pushed back from Game 3 based on Bauer’s status to the potential clincher.
Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway called Merritt in to give him the standard calming talk, to do the best he could. Merritt played it cool, as when hearing of Bautista’s comments, figuring “he was a veteran that’s amazing at the game and has had a great career and I’m this skinny lefty about to pitch his second game,” so it was his right to say what he wanted.
“When it came down to that moment, it was just go out and compete and be yourself,’’ Merritt said. “Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. Trust your defense. Control what you can control. I knew how good I can be, so I knew I could go out and win that game.’’
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That all sounded good, until Merritt actually took the mound to face Bautista, who was leading off.
“His first pitch of the game was like 83 (mph),’’ Callaway said, “and Tito goes, “Was that a fastball?” And I said, “I think it was.’ ‘’
“I think we were nervous,’’ Francona said. “But he wasn’t. He just threw his game.’’
Merritt, somehow, made it work, challenging the Jays right-handed sluggers inside and tormenting them overall. He retired the first 10 – thus Bautista twice – working into the fifth, allowing only two singles. The Indians decided he’d done his part, turning the 3-0 lead over to their ‘pen to close out.
“It was one of the best moments for a young player I’ve ever seen in baseball,’’ said Callaway, now the Mets manager. “He went out there and committed to every pitch, and he did it. He was unbelievable.
"The kid has huge (guts), no doubt about it.’’
“It was like he wasn’t even fazed,’’ former Jays manager John Gibbons said. “The kid stepped up and did a tremendous job. I had to tip my hat to him.’’
Merritt’s feat became a big part of the clubhouse celebration, teammates encouraging him to hold up the brown Dan Post boots he wore to the park that day (and still has).
Then they grabbed their phones.
Bauer tweeted a photo of a champagne bottle in one of the boots. Teammate Corey Kluber sent out a photoshopped pic of Merritt pitching with boots on. Jose Ramirez posted a GIF of shaking boots.
As thrilled as Merritt and then-fiancee Sarah were with his hand in the win, they soon found out there were more rewards coming. Fans scouring the Internet for info on the Indians surprise standout discovered their online wedding registry at Pottery Barn and Target. And they showed their thanks by buying them gifts. Lots of gifts.
Ryan and Sarah heard something about it from a teammate on the bus to the Toronto airport, but didn’t fully grasp it until they woke up the next day to dozens of notifications on their phones. And more so over the next couple days when boxes began to stack up at her parents’ house in Rochester, Minn.
“They called saying UPS was dropping off like 30 boxes a day,’’ Sarah said. “It was literally insane. We were so overwhelmed, felt so grateful and blessed. It was a blur.''
Fans bought out the somewhat basic registry, leaving their actual friends to scramble. Some fans inquired about attending the January nupitals, and a few even offered to officiate.
“Almost everything at our house now is from Cleveland fans,’’ Sarah said. “It was so crazy. I can’t even remember all the duplicates we had.’’
“Getting really low dollar amount, like $5, gift cards from kids,’’ she said. “It was just the sweetest thing. That’s honestly what I remember most, just people wanting to contribute. It wasn’t the fanciness or the dollar amount, it was the fact it was something for them to be a part of, something personal for them to give Ryan.’’
Naïve to how quickly a star is born, Sarah and Ryan found themselves doing TV interviews about the gift giving, then being recognized by fans on the streets. They added a nice touch after their January 2017 wedding by sending thank you notes to all the fans.
“We were so grateful they cared so much about us, appreciated us so much they were willing to go out of their way to spend their hard-earned money to get us wedding gifts,'' Ryan said. "It was just insane.''
The story doesn’t end there.
Merritt pitched well in 2017 but spent most of the year at Triple-A, unable to crack Cleveland’s rotation. A knee sprain and shoulder inflammation limited him last year, but when healthy he was on the mark in the minors, going 3-3, 3.79, but more impressively facing 291 batters and walking exactly two.
Calling Merritt’s strike-throwing “contagious,’’ manager Kevin Cash said the Rays are happy to have him, likely competing for a job or as Triple-A depth, knowing he’s already shown he won’t be shaking in the face of any challenge.
“I don’t want that one moment to define my career,’’ Merritt said. “I would like to have a much longer lasting career than that moment. But it’s a great one to put on my resume I guess.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.