Merrill hits first Major League homer, gets silent treatment

April 2nd, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- had time to kill before batting practice on Monday. He strolled over to the clubhouse Ping-Pong table, picked up a paddle and a ball and waited. And waited some more.

For several minutes, Merrill stood alone, bouncing the ball atop his paddle. He was a solo act until , his teammate throughout their shared climb to the Majors, joined him for a spirited game or two.

It wasn’t the last time Merrill was left hanging, but the next one was for the best of baseball reasons.

Merrill hit the first home run of his fledgling Major League career, an opposite-field drive in the Padres’ 6-2 loss to the Cardinals in the series opener Monday night at Petco Park. Upon reaching the dugout, he was ignored by teammates in a traditional prank. Merrill went down the line, giving phantom high-fives to teammates with their backs turned.

Finally, ended the charade and posed for a Polaroid picture with Merrill, the Padres’ in-house, home run celebration. Then the rookie was mobbed by teammates, giving him proper due for a memorable career first. And, yes, Pauley was right there.

“I’ll probably watch the video 40 million times,” said Merrill, who bartered a bat to retrieve the ball from the fan who caught it.

Merrill, the Padres’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline rankings, might have preferred home run No. 1 to come in a more dramatic spot. But it was a prime example why the Padres put him on the Opening Day roster at age 20 with no experience above Double-A.

With the Padres down four runs in the bottom of the third, Merrill stepped up with two outs and nobody on base. Veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson started him with a 93.2 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate, but too much plate. Merrill was ready for it.

Many young hitters can get a bit jumpy, or pull-happy, when they get a first-pitch fastball they’re anticipating. Merrill, however, simply dropped the barrel of his bat and put an easy swing on the pitch, powering it out to left field at 104.8 mph off the bat, per Statcast. “See it, hit it” at its finest.

“Loud noise,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said. “Driving the ball the other way. … He’s using the whole field. That was an impressive swing and loud noise. Congratulations to Jackson.”

Shildt was particularly impressed that homer No. 1 went to the opposite field.

“It’s a great trait,” Shildt said. “I don’t know how rare it is or not for any hitter. But for a young hitter coming to the big leagues for the first time, not trying to do too much speaks highly of Jackson and his ability to not only handle the bat, but to have a good approach. He’s a stud.”

Merrill said he was indeed looking for a fastball.

“Just going up there looking for something in the middle,” Merrill said. “I was ready for his pitch to hit.”

Merrill had the big moment, but it was a notable night for several other Padres:

  • reached 10 years of MLB service time. The Major League Baseball Players Association says less than 10% of all MLB players reach that milestone.
  • Padres starter threw 41 knuckleballs over four-plus innings. That’s the most by any San Diego pitcher since pitch tracking began in 2008 and the most in an MLB game since June 23, 2021, when Baltimore's Mickey Jannis threw 57 vs. Houston in his only MLB appearance.
  • Shildt managed against his former team for the first time. He was the Cardinals’ skipper from 2018-21.

It was Merrill’s home run that caught the attention of the MLB authenticators, however. It was his night, even if it wasn’t the Padres’ night.

“First homer always feels good,” Merrill said. “But I’m not really focused on the homer right now. I’m focused on the scoreboard. That’s the most important thing. It was a cool moment, got the crowd back in it. But that’s not really my focus right now.”

There were some victories to be had, however. Somebody had to win at Ping-Pong, right?

“[Pauley] won the first one,” Merrill said, “and I won the next two. I think the series is tied, 10-10.”