Julian Merryweather had never been thrust into a save opportunity before Opening Day on Thursday. But it likely won’t be his last as he made quick work of the New York Yankees.
What a way to earn your first save opportunity. Opening Day, with Yankee Stadium welcoming back fans for the first time in 18 months, facing the middle of the powerful Yankees lineup nursing a one-run lead in extra innings. That’s the situation Julian Merryweather found himself in on Thursday, and he wasn’t fazed by it.
Merryweather struck out the side on 11 pitches in the bottom of the 10th, earning his first career save in preserving the Blue Jays’ 3-2 Opening Day win in the Bronx. The right-hander threw only one ball, his fastball hitting 99 mph as he made quick work of Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gleyber Torres, all with the tying run starting the inning on second base.
Hicks didn’t even take the bat off his shoulder facing Merryweather, looking at three called strikes, the last a changeup on the outside corner. The powerful Stanton feebly swung and missed at a 99 mph fastball to strike out on three pitches, sending Torres up to the plate as the Yankees’ last hope to tie the game. Torres actually made contact, fouling off two pitches, before he, too, struck out swinging on a 99.1 mph fastball, the fastest pitch Merryweather threw in the outing.
Merryweather came a pitch away from an immaculate inning after quickly getting to a 0-2 count on Torres before spiking a slider in the dirt, the only one of his 11 pitches to miss the strike zone. He’s the first pitcher in the pitch-tracking era to strike out the side on 11 or fewer pitches and earn the save on Opening Day; Blue Jays pitchers had only done that twice in any game in franchise history. Of his four fastballs, all but one was thrown at least 98.9 mph. He had three of the top-five hardest pitches in the game, behind only two fastballs Yankees’ starter Gerrit Cole threw in the early innings.
Manager Charlie Montoyo never intended to use Merryweather in save situations. Merryweather nearly didn’t even make the Opening Day roster, claiming one of the final two spots in the bullpen. Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis were the arms expected to replace Kirby Yates, who was lost for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. However, both had been used earlier in the game, with Romano getting out of a jam in the ninth inning with runners at first and third with only one out before getting DJ LeMahieu to ground into a fielder’s choice at the plate and Aaron Judge swinging on a 97 mph fastball.
That left Merryweather, at age 29 making an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career, to try to earn the save in the 10th after Randal Grichuk drove in the go-ahead run with a double in the top half of the inning. Merryweather was the player to be named later in the Josh Donaldson trade to Cleveland in August 2018. He got into eight games in his rookie season last year, giving up six runs in 13 innings while striking out 15.
Trying to get the save, in front of a hostile Yankee Stadium crowd and with the pressure of an Opening Day atmosphere, is something he doesn’t have much experience with. But watching him on Thursday, keeping his composure and staying cool despite the situation, you would never know it.
“The moment itself, being at Yankee Stadium was surreal. I mean, that’s like Little League dreams right there,” he said after the game. “To be able to go out there in Yankee Stadium and get a win, it’s a very cool experience. It’s a great way to start the year.”
Montoyo still doesn’t have a full-time closer. Romano and Dolis will be sure to get their opportunities throughout the year. Merryweather, though, showed his manager he shouldn’t hesitate to bring him in with the game on the line. This likely won’t be the last time Merryweather is thrust into a high-pressure situation out of the bullpen; nor, based on this performance, should it be.