TORONTO – The American League Championship Series was lost long before Ryan Merritt slopped his way to 13 fingers-crossed outs, before Marco Estrada made a few mistakes too many, before the 48,800 that filled Rogers Centre for one final rowdy time left the building.

By missing opportunities in the first three games of the series, the Toronto Blue Jays left themselves no margin for error against a Cleveland club that played with little slack. Becoming the second team to ever rally from a 3-0 deficit in the post-season was never likely, even if you could a path back to Progressive Field with the left-handed Merritt, who topped out at 87.4 mph and sat 86, starting Wednesday in a mismatch with Estrada, an all-star.

Really, a 3-0 win in the series clincher for AL Central champions makes little sense, but then, so many things in this wild, disjointed Blue Jays season didn’t play out the way you would have expected. Getting stymied by Merritt before the dragon of death Andrew Miller burned through what remained of their hopes and Cody Allen swept away the ashes?

Sort of fitting, in a twisted sense.

Now come the bigger-picture questions, starting with the pending free agencies of franchise icons Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, along with Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil and Dioner Navarro, among others. Industry sources believe Encarnacion is headed for a nine-figure contract while Bautista’s market may be more robust than some expect as teams that miss out on Encarnacion are likely to circle back to him.

The only thing clear is that this Blue Jays group will be substantially different when it returns in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the ALCS.

One person definitely back is John Gibbons, who will manage 2017 in the final year of his current contract, team president Mark Shapiro told Sportsnet.

“There’s a level of consistency with him in approach that is unflappable and I think that translates into toughness,” Shapiro said in an interview. “He’s the same guy and in a role like this, when people tend to go with the wind and get so impacted by the emotion that flies all around us, that stability, that strength and that toughness from a leader is a real asset.

“There’s no panic. He believes in the talent, he believes in his players, he believes in the process and he believes in all the work that’s been done to date. That gives us confidence, that gives the players confidence and the belief to hold true to the bigger picture. That’s a separator.”

Less certain is how much money the Blue Jays will have to spend as the team is still working through off-season planning to determine a payroll number for next year. But the change at CEO from Guy Laurence to the incoming Joe Natale at team owner Rogers Communications Inc., is believed to be a good thing for the team.

Certainly the expectations for the Blue Jays have changed substantially, both from a fanbase that led the American League in attendance at 3,392,099 during the regular season, and perhaps from an ownership that continually cites the team’s revenue generation for the Media division in its quarterly reports.

The Blue Jays currently have $103.3 million in guarantees to eight players for next season, with Marcus Stroman expected to be only the substantial arbitration hit. Focal points this winter are likely to be on adding athletic, speedy left-handed hitters to the lineup, beefing up the bullpen and adding depth to an exceptionally strong starting rotation.

The Blue Jays’ right-handed heavy lineup was seen as a liability that contributed to a dismal 11-16 September that nearly pushed them out of the playoffs, and in Game 5, it didn’t help them against Merritt, owner of a 3.70 ERA and a 9.8 hits per nine rate at triple-A Columbus with all of 11 big-league innings under his belt.

He retired the first 10 batters he faced, a run broken up by Josh Donaldson’s single in the fourth, but Encarnacion followed with a double-play ball to short that ended the inning. Russell Martin blooped a one-out single in the fifth to prompt Cleveland manager Terry Francona to not tempt fate and bring in Bryan Shaw, who struck out both Ezequiel Carrera and Kevin Pillar to snuff out the threat.

Miller, who recorded 28 outs in the ALCS, took over after Bautista’s one-out single in the sixth and on the first pitch induced a double-play grounder from Donaldson to kill another attempt at a rally.

Pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro delivered his second and the Blue Jays’ third hit off Miller in the eighth but things went nowhere there, either.

Bautista, in perhaps his last at-bat with the Blue Jays, led off the ninth with a double off Allen and made the Rogers Centre roar nearly as loudly as it did when he hit his bat-flip home run in Game 5 of the ALDS last year. But Donaldson struck out as did Encarnacion, serenaded with chants of “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” as he stepped to the plate for maybe the last time with the Blue Jays.

Troy Tulowitzki popped out to end it and Bautista walked from second to the dugout with his head down, greeted by a pat on the back from Stroman as he descended down the steps. Tulowitzki tossed his batting gloves to some fans, while Encarnacion slid his bat to another over top of the dugout, Cleveland celebrating by the mound the whole time.