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Adventures in Ohio Part I: The Columbus Clippers (Ryan Merritt Revisited)

I'm on vacation in Ohio and I'm making it to three Tribe-related games. Here's my take on Game 1, the Durham Bulls vs. the Columbus Clippers.

Ryan Merritt was dominant for six solid innings.
Ryan Merritt was dominant for six solid innings.

I don't get out much. Whenever I go on vacation, it's usually out to Ohio to visit family. I tell people from work of my destination, and I get looks ranging from puzzled to concerned. No one really gets why I would choose Cleveland, OH as my week long getaway from work and responsibility. Well, for me, I much prefer spending time with family and relaxing in a quieter part of the country as opposed to going to some exotic, far-off place. I'll probably have the desire to go to those places in the future, but for now, Ohio is my vacation destination. And, on top of getting to visit my family, I also have a fun chance to see the Cleveland Indians and some of their affiliates in person, an opportunity that I rarely get out in Southern California.

Yesterday was my first of three games I have planned for this trip. I'm seeing Cleveland take on the Toronto Blue Jays this Friday and Saturday (I actually planned the entire trip around the Saturday game so I could get the Lindor jersey that they're giving away). Yesterday, however, my brother and I made the two-hour drive from Lorain County to Huntington Park in Columbus to see the Clippers. My initial plan was to see a Lake County game, but since Matt Esparza had been promoted to Lynchburg and my schedule made it so I missed Tristan McKenzie's start, seeing Bradley Zimmer and the Clippers seemed much more appealing.

To be honest, I wasn't sure that the game would actually happen. The entire drive down towards Columbus was plagued with heavy rain showers, and I anticipated arriving to Huntington Park to find a sign on the gate saying that the game had been postponed. However, when we were about 5 miles out from the stadium, everything cleared up for a beautiful day of day baseball. We parked, bought our tickets behind home plate, and made our way inside. Huntington Park is a beautiful stadium, by the way. It reminded me a lot of Cicerone Field, the baseball complex at UCI, only on a grander scale.

Beautiful Huntington Park. Tyler Griffith

The game featured Ryan Merritt on the hill for the Clippers. Earlier this year, I wrote about whether he or Mike Clevinger should start for the Cleveland Indians this season, and I said that Clevinger should. Based on what I saw on Wednesday, however, I'm more inclined to want to see Merritt try his hand at the MLB level. His first inning was a little shaky, but I think it was more due to the rain and the error by Ronnie Rodriguez, who botched a routine grounder to start the game. With two on and nobody out, Merritt came back with a strikeout and a double play to get out of the inning. From the get-go, his velocity was sitting in the 84-87 mph range, but his command was impeccable. Specifically, his dominance of the outer half of the plate was Tomlin-esque all game long. The umpire made sure that he was rewarded for his efforts, and he had a fairly consistent zone the entire game, which Merritt took advantage of. But more on him later.

Durham starter Jacob Faria was even more effective than Merritt. He made the Columbus hitters look foolish on more than one occasion. The two notable instances came in the first against Ronnie Rodriguez when he struck him out swinging on a pitch above his head, and in the third when our friend Joey Butler swung and missed on a curveball that bounced in the other batter's box. After some quick research, it appears that Jacob Faria is a fairly well-regarded prospect in the Rays system (No. 6 for Minor League Ball, No. 5 on MLB), so it's not like he's a nobody. But through the first few innings, his mix of fastball and a number of breaking pitches completely outmatched the Columbus lineup. After getting Butler out in the third, a 79 mph curveball got away from Faria and hit Yhoxian Medina in the back to give Columbus their first baserunner.

Enter Erik Gonzalez.

The heir apparent to Francisco Lindor, Gonzalez stepped to the plate and took two quick pitches low and out of the zone to get ahead in the count. The next pitch was grooved right down the middle of the plate, and Gonzalez didn't miss. To be completely honest, I figured that the ball was just another routine fly, but it kept carrying. And carrying. And carrying until it dropped over the wall in right center field for Gonzalez's 11th home run on the season. I was unaware, at the time, that this would be the only scoring that would happen for the duration of the game (side note: Huntington Park ALSO uses the Mario coin for Clippers runs).

On a day when offense was lacking and pitching reigned supreme, the crowd was treated to an incredible performance by Ryan Merritt. After the first inning, Merritt really settled in and went to work. Early on in the game, Merritt wasn't really using his curveball at all, and on the rare occasions in which he did use it, it was bouncing in front of the plate and not fooling the Durham hitters. I'm not sure what happened, but by the fourth inning, his curveball was working extremely well. His curve was sitting in the 77-79 mph range, for the most part, and it was causing a lot of the Durham hitters to make weak contact, which was a pleasant change from the balls that were being scorched over the field early in the game.

If there was one takeaway that I had from this game, it is that Ryan Merritt is fantastic

The best instance of Merritt's dominance came in the fourth inning when he faced Casey Gillaspie. Merritt dropped a 70 mph curveball into the zone that completely baffled Gillaspie (it baffled me too). Following that, he elevated an 85 mph fastball, forcing Gillaspie to change his eye level and react quickly, which ended in a swinging strikeout. If there was one takeaway that I had from this game, it is that Ryan Merritt is fantastic at putting his pitches where he wants them and he knows what to throw when. I'm sure a lot of credit should be credited to the man behind the plate, Guillermo Quiroz, for calling a good game, but Merritt was very impressive.

Now, a lot of you are probably thinking "WHY HAVE YOU NOT SPOKEN ABOUT BRADLEY ZIMMER YET?!?!?!". To be completely honest, it's because Zimmer did not look good. Obviously it's just one game and the weather wasn't perfect, but Zimmer looked overmatched at the plated in all three of his at-bats. He K'd swinging in the second, K'd swinging in the fourth, and K'd looking in the seventh. He's a big, athletic guy, and I'm sure another game would have been more exciting, but it was a day to forget for Bradley Zimmer.

To be honest, when Craig Stammen came in to relieve Ryan Merritt in the top of the seventh, I was taken aback. Merritt, at the time, was only at 84 pitches and had been dominating the Bulls up to this point, having only allowed 2 base hits. But Stammen, much like Merritt, had great sequencing between his fastball (90 mph) and curveball (77 mph) and used them to get out of the inning with no damage done.

The setup man for Columbus (at least for this day) was Cody Anderson, and he was impressive. His fastball was consistently sitting in the 96-97 mph range, and his knee buckling curveball was easily located for a strike at 81 mph. It took Neo 10 pitches to make it through the top of the eighth. As I watched Anderson have Miller-like efficiency, I entertained the thought of Anderson being in the Cleveland bullpen down the stretch. To be honest, I'd probably have him in the bullpen instead of Zach McAllister at this point. Yes, it was only 10 pitches in Triple-A, but if those 10 pitches are indicative of how Cody Anderson is throwing now, he should be in Cleveland.

The ninth inning brought some excitement to Huntington Park. Austin Adams was in to close, and he was able to mix his fastball and breaking ball well to get two looking Ks to start the inning. However, a single and a bloop single put runners at the corners for Durham, who was finally threatening to do something offensively, which they hadn't really done since the first inning. Pinch runner Eury Perez was able to steal 2B, putting the tying run in scoring position; Austin Adams was having none of this. By rearing back and hitting 97 mph, Adams got his third looking K of the inning to end the game and hand the Clippers a win.

Because Akron is away this week and my schedule won't allow me to see any Lake County games, the game from yesterday will be the only minor league game that I will see on my trip. But damn if it wasn't a good one.