TORONTO (AP) — A most unlikely pitching performance helped put a most unexpected team into the World Series.
Rookie Ryan Merritt coolly delivered a lead to the Andrew Miller-led bullpen and the Cleveland Indians won their first pennant since 1997, blanking Toronto 3-0 Wednesday in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series.
Cleveland, which has never hosted a World Series opener, will play Game 1 at Progressive Field on Tuesday night against either the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers.
Manager Terry Francona’s team will try to boost what’s already been a magical year in Cleveland after LeBron James and the Cavaliers earned the city’s first sports championship since 1964. The Indians’ title drought dates to 1948.
The Dodgers led the Cubs 2-1 going into Game 4 of the NLCS on Wednesday night. Cleveland didn’t play either club this season.
Miller, acquired from the New York Yankees in a midseason trade, wound up as the ALCS MVP as the Indians took their sixth pennant.
With all of 11 major league innings under his belt, Merritt took the mound and looked just like a seasoned vet. The 24-year-old lefty retired the first 10 batters and allowed only two hits before being pulled after 4 1/3 innings.
“I know they were counting on me,” Merritt said. “Before the game, they came and told me they had my back, everybody had my back, good or bad. So that takes some pressure off, and I just went out there and pitched and trusted my team.”
Merritt got taps on his heart and hat from teammates when he left the mound. Then it was up to Cleveland’s tireless relievers to hold a three-run lead against the wild-card Blue Jays.
Miller again did most of the heavy lifting, pitching 2 2/3 innings, and Cody Allen pitched the ninth for the save. Winner Bryan Shaw worked an inning before Miller came in.
Carlos Santana and Coco Crisp homered for the Indians.
With starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer dealing with injuries, the Indians kept defying the odds.
Cleveland overtook defending World Series champion Kansas City and topped Detroit to win the AL Central, then put an abrupt ending to Big Papi’s career, sweeping David Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
The Indians stayed on a roll in the ALCS, shutting down the banging Blue Jays.
Merritt — a Texas native drafted in the 16th round by Cleveland in 2011 — made only one start during the regular season, on Sept. 30 against Kansas City.
The newcomer hadn’t pitched in a game since then, although he’d gotten some work in this month in the instructional league at the Indians’ spring training complex in Arizona.
A day after Toronto averted a sweep, the crowd at the roaring Rogers Centre expected the Blue Jays to roll over the rookie.
Maybe the Blue Jays did, too.
“With our experience in our lineup, I’m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are,” Toronto slugger Jose Bautista said after Game 4.
Instead, Merritt struck out three batters in the first two innings — all looking — and didn’t allow a baserunner until Josh Donaldson’s one-out single in the fourth. After Russell Martin singled with one out in the fifth, it was time for Francona to lean again on a bullpen that pitched 8 1/3 innings in a Game 3 win Monday.
Shaw pitched an inning, and Miller came on with one out in the sixth and a man on. Donaldson bounced into a double play on Miller’s first pitch, and the tall lefty made it through the seventh and eighth with little trouble before giving way to Allen.
Cleveland took a 1-0 lead in the first when Mike Napoli doubled and left fielder Ezequiel Carrera misplayed the ball off the wall for an error. Francisco Lindor scored from first on the play.
Santana and Crisp added solo shots in the third and fourth off Toronto starter Marco Estrada to put the AL Central champions up 3-0.
Indians: Francona said before the game that Bauer was supposed to have his right pinkie that was cut by a drone looked at again by a doctor. The idea was to see if the right-hander could potentially pitch out of the bullpen at all during this series after being lifted in the first inning of Game 3.
Now the question is whether Bauer can be of any help in the World Series.
“Obviously, he needs to heal, but he can’t just not throw,” Francona said.
Indians: Cleveland returns home and rests up for the World Series.
Blue Jays: Toronto faces an uncertain offseason after making the postseason as a wild card. Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are in the final year of their contracts.