TORONTO -- At about 12:30 Wednesday afternoon, some 3½ hours before he threw a pitch in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, Ryan Merritt got pulled into Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona's office. Sensing the kid with one major league start to his name might be a wee bit nervous, Francona wanted to reassure him.
"He said, 'Hey, no matter what, good or bad, when you go out there, we're behind you,'" Merritt said Francona told him. "He said, 'I'm behind you, your team is behind you, everybody is behind you, so just go out there and be yourself.'"
Merritt exhaled. Once again, Francona had hit the perfect note.
Welcome to the October of Tito.
The Indians won the AL pennant here Wednesday evening, punching a ticket to their first World Series since 1997 with a 3-0 muting of the Toronto Blue Jays. Merritt, the lefty soft-tosser who Jays slugger Jose Bautista predicted would be "shaking in his boots," stood firm, delivering 4⅓ scoreless innings and turning over a three-run lead to the bullpen troika of Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen for the final 14 outs.
As usual, the whole thing was orchestrated by Francona, who has solidified his Hall of Fame candidacy with perhaps the best managerial run of his career. That's saying something, considering what he accomplished in 2004, when he steered the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.
The Indians won 94 games, a 13-game improvement over last season, and the AL Central crown, but they lost two of their three best starting pitchers to injury in an eight-day span in September. Yet even without Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, they swept the mighty Red Sox in the Division Series. And although right-hander Trevor Bauer gashed his pinkie finger while repairing a drone on the eve of the ALCS, the Indians vanquished the Blue Jays because Francona wrung the most out of a depleted rotation, boldly used his bullpen and made so many golden touches that even King Midas would be jealous.
"I've had a difficult time coming up with the right adjective for it, but 'masterful' seems to be the word that's most appropriate," team president Chris Antonetti said, his T-shirt and shorts soaked with beer and champagne from a celebration that began with the Indians holding up a pair of cowboy boots and vowing to autograph them for Bautista. "It really has been extraordinary the way he's managed really challenging circumstances and found a way to overcome those."
It doesn't get much more challenging than having to turn to a former 16th-round pick with 11 innings' worth of experience in the big leagues and an 88 mph fastball to start Game 5 with nearly 50,000 fans in raucous Rogers Centre, to say nothing of the entire nation of Canada, rooting against him.
Merritt sounded calm Tuesday night after the Indians dropped Game 4 with ace Corey Kluber on the mound. But just because his arm was in shape after spending the past few weeks facing hitters in the Arizona Instructional League, that didn't mean his head wasn't spinning like a top.
When Merritt arrived in the clubhouse a few hours before Wednesday's game, Francona thought he looked "justifiably a little nervous." If Francona could help ease those nerves, he figured the Indians just might have a chance. And by the time Merritt began warming up in the bullpen, pitching coach Mickey Calloway said he looked "unflappable."
"Tito's always going to say the right thing to somebody to get 'em to perform. That's what he does," Calloway said. "He's changed the culture here for the Cleveland Indians, and that's why we're going where we're going."
Francona's style, honed during eight seasons in Boston, is to protect his players at all costs. He communicates clearly their status in the lineup or on the pitching staff and is content to bear the brunt of any criticism from fans and media if it insulates the players.
And Francona has a way of diffusing tension by leaning on a self-deprecating, often crass sense of humor. When Bauer was bleeding on the mound in the first inning of Game 3, Francona noticed a scoreboard announcement about a 50/50 drawing and made first baseman Mike Napoli laugh by suggesting they get in on the jackpot.
"Tito is such a people person," Napoli said. "He understands situations, he understands the hype, he knows how to calm you. He's been there before. He's been through it as a player, he's been through it in Boston. He's done so much and been through it that anything he says, it opens your eyes. It means something, because he's so genuine as a person. To be able to look at your leader in that way is something special."
Said Antonetti: "He's so thoughtful in the way he obsessively finds ways to help players be successful, whether that's putting them in a position on the field or having the conversations in the clubhouse beforehand. He's had such an extraordinary impact on me and the entirety of the organization."
Still, Merritt confessed to being nervous in the first inning, not that it showed. He retired Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion -- the Blue Jays' three scariest hitters -- on 13 pitches, freezing Encarnacion with a third-strike curveball on the black.
As a matter of fact, Merritt set down the first 10 Toronto batters. And when he gave up a one-out single to Donaldson in the fourth inning, he calmly got Encarnacion to ground into a double play.
As surprising playoff starts go, it ranked up there in Indians lore with journeyman Chad Ogea outdueling Kevin Brown twice in the 1997 World Series.
"It's pretty amazing to me that, for a guy with one major league start, the amount of confidence we had," Miller said. "I don't think anybody in here thought today was a throwaway. We came here to win. We weren't worried about winning a game at home. We weren't worried about getting to [Josh] Tomlin and Kluber again. We had Ryan Merritt on the mound. We liked our chances."
That confidence began with Francona. But Francona also knew enough not to push his, or Merritt's, luck either. After Merritt gave up a one-out single to Russell Martin in the fifth inning, Francona decisively turned to Shaw to preserve a 3-0 lead built by a Napoli double in the first inning and solo homers by Carlos Santana in the third and by Coco Crisp in the fourth.
Shaw recorded three outs, Miller got eight and Allen finished it off by working around a leadoff double by Bautista with strikeouts of Donaldson and Encarnacion and a foul popup by Troy Tulowitzki.
Miller was a deserving ALCS MVP, having allowed only three hits and struck out 14 in 7⅔ walk-free innings. But Miller is thriving in part because of Francona's willingness to buck convention and use him in the highest-leverage situations, regardless of inning.
And lately, if Francona is making the decision, it always works out.
"People don't care what you know until they know you care, and Tito truly cares about his guys," Allen said. "He truly cares about everybody in this organization from top to bottom."
In the October of Tito, that's what matters most.