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Cleveland Indians

Spector | Do Indians have arms needed for deep playoff run?

Cleveland Indians pitcher Ryan Merritt delivers the ball to the New York Yankees during the first inning in the second game of a baseball doubleheader Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

NEW YORK – Cleveland Indians pitcher Ryan Merritt has now pitched 36 innings in his major league career, including the playoffs, and his ERA is 1.50.

Merritt isn’t really that otherworldly, of course, as he’s 10-5 with a 3.03 ERA this year in Triple-A, but after the way he pitched in the clinching Game 5 of last year’s American League Championship Series, and 5.1 innings of one-run ball on five hits in Cleveland’s 9-4 victory over the Yankees to complete a doubleheader sweep on Wednesday, it sure is worth considering the left-hander as an October option for a team quickly running away with the American League Central.

Cleveland has Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco as absolute givens in any playoff series, but there are question marks after that, especially with uncertainty over Danny Salazar’s elbow.

Trevor Bauer, whose drone accident last year was the reason Merritt was added to the ALCS roster, has gone 5-0 with a 2.45 ERA in his last seven starts, including Wednesday’s doubleheader opener, but posted a 5.32 ERA in four starts this season against the American League’s other likely division winners, Boston and Houston. Josh Tomlin, with a 5.38 season ERA, is on the disabled list now. Mike Clevinger has had a nice season, 7-5 with a 3.72 ERA, but also is Cleveland’s best option for the important playoff role of long reliever.

Perhaps most important is that Merritt, as a southpaw, acts as a counter to some of the American League’s best teams. The Astros are only 17-21 against lefty starters this year, while Boston is 15-15, and the current wild-card leaders, the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, are 19-20 and 18-19, respectively. Further, as a soft-tossing lefty in a rotation otherwise full of strikeout-machine righties, Merritt is a good change-of-pace option in a playoff series to keep opponents from getting locked in.

“I try not to go outside of who I am as a pitcher,” said Merritt, who has only seven strikeouts in 20.2 innings in the majors this year. “I know that I’m a contact pitcher. I’m not going to strike out the world. I’m going to do my best to go out there, throw strikes and compete as best I can. It’s great to have these guys in the locker room that are those power guys and stuff, but I still know that I have to be the best Ryan Merritt I can be.”

Merritt also has another strength that is particularly important in playoff baseball: He does not get into trouble by granting free baserunners to the opposition — an easy way to have difficulty against elite competition.

“He actually walked two today, which you don’t see very often,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “He pounds the zone with whatever he’s throwing, whether it’s an 84 mph fastball and an 83 mph changeup or breaking ball. … He doesn’t back off, and there’s obviously some deception there with all the movements he’s doing, but he just attacks the zone.”

If there’s an issue Merritt has, it’s that he has not shown an ability to go deep into games. That, however, is not an issue in October, not with the strength of Cleveland’s bullpen — especially once Andrew Miller returns — and not with the way Francona aggressively managed that bullpen in getting to Game 7 of the World Series last year.

“They’ve got great arms,” Yankees first baseman Greg Bird said. “They’ve got a great team, really.”

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