Merrill flashy at new position; Matsui K's the side

February 23rd, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Glass half full, it’s baseball season. Glass half empty, this was an inauspicious way for the 2024 Padres to get things started.

Given that it’s Feb. 22, the Padres will gladly take the glass-half-full view following their 14-1 loss to the rival Dodgers on Thursday afternoon in the Cactus League opener.

“Didn’t go our way today, but ultimately, for me, in Spring Training, it’s about just looking to see if we’re on time with certain things and looking at the little things,” said manager Mike Shildt.

Forget the scoreboard, here’s what really mattered from Thursday’s Cactus League opener:

Merrill tested in left
Two of the biggest Padres storylines this spring revolve around shortstops changing positions. Xander Bogaerts, making his second-base debut, had one bloop hit over his head and no other balls in his direction.

, meanwhile, got tested in left field. He made three catches, including a diving grab on a tricky sinking line drive in the first. In the fourth, he ranged back and to his right to snare another liner -- a lower degree of difficulty, but still a challenging play for a neophyte left fielder. Merrill made it look routine.

“He was fantastic,” Shildt said. “Ballplayers just get it done, man.”

Merrill will continue to get reps at shortstop this spring, Shildt said earlier this week. But the clearest path to playing time is in left field. The Padres' No. 2 prospect in the MLB Pipeline rankings, Merrill started 0-for-2 at the plate, but so far, the glove looks good.

“I’ve come a long way since I started [playing the outfield] last year,” Merrill said. “I feel like now I’m taking good first steps toward the ball in every direction. … I’m definitely seeing the ball a lot better off the bat.”

Short day for Musgrove
No matter how he pitched on Thursday, ’s spring is already off to a better start than the last one. It was last February when Musgrove fractured his big toe by dropping a kettlebell on it in the team’s weight room. He then missed his first few starts of the season.

Better to be on the mound -- even if the results Thursday were ugly. Musgrove faced four Dodgers hitters, all of whom worked deep counts. All four reached base, and, eventually, all four scored (two after Musgrove’s exit).

“First start of spring, I could’ve struck out the side, and I wouldn’t have felt much different than I do right now,” said Musgrove. “First one is always about getting your feet under you, getting used to the clock again and the competition.”

In a different spring, Musgrove wouldn’t have been on the mound at all. But the Padres open their season against the Dodgers in Korea, March 20-21. In all likelihood, Musgrove is lining up to start one of those games.

As such, he pushed his scheduled throw day back by one day so he could pitch in the opener Thursday. Now, having thrown only 24 pitches, he’s scheduled to pitch again on Monday (planned short rest) with multiple innings as the target.

“Again, the results are kind of irrelevant at this point,” Musgrove said. “You never want to go out there and fail. But the progression is a little bit more important.”

What a relief
The Padres set specific innings for their pitchers on Thursday, so when Musgrove exited early, they called on Minor Leaguers to fill the void. Predictably, those Minor Leaguers were hit hard. But when Shildt got into his big league bullpen options, the results were impressive.

struck out the side in the second, falling one ball shy of an immaculate inning. A waiver claim from the Cubs, Estrada is in contention for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Then, Yuki Matsui took the ball for the third, facing big league hitters for the first time in a game setting. He equaled Estrada, striking out all three Dodgers.

“I was pretty nervous before the outing, that’s for sure,” Matsui said. “But Estrada, he [was] really good pitching before me, so he gave me some confidence.”

Matsui, who was one of the best relievers in Japan before he signed with the Padres in December, is expected to pitch high-leverage innings in San Diego. The Dodgers’ Gavin Lux, Matsui’s first strikeout victim, was among those impressed.

“Man, he threw me a really good splitter,” Lux said. “His fastball's got some ride to it. Sneaky, with a good splitter. From what I saw, he's pretty damn good.”