It's a Merrill-go-round as rookie homers again

June 16th, 2024

NEW YORK -- After a loss to the Mets on Friday, answered questions and prepped for the team bus with a quiet intensity -- a steeliness fueled by frustration stemming from a tough loss and missed opportunities.

Though he provided the only run with a solo home run, the inability to come through with runners on in the seventh inning left a sore spot in the 21-year-old’s mind, especially with how tightly the game was in the balance for all nine frames.

“I was on it, just missed it a little bit -- I got beat,” Merrill said after the series-opening loss. “At the end of the day … regardless of how close I was to hitting a homer, how close I was to hitting a single. … I got beat.

“[But] we didn’t give up, nobody gave up, that’s all I care about.”

The Padres’ 5-1 loss to the Mets on Saturday held a moment of déjà vu, as Merrill provided the lone run via a solo blast for the second straight evening. It was Merrill’s fourth home run in the past three games.

Merrill joined Fernando Tatis Jr. (August 2020) as the second Padre to complete the feat at age 21 or younger. The rookie center fielder also became the 15th player (American League or National League) to homer four times over three contests before his 22nd birthday.

Merrill’s Saturday matinee blast was like a game of “spot the difference” compared to his previous home run at Citi Field, this time turning around an inside heater from left-hander Jose Quintana for a Statcast-projected 411-foot solo homer to right-center field. And as he rounded third base, this time his furtive motivation tactics were more muted -- with a calm “let’s go” and a hand motion to keep the tide in motion.

“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that are self-led in our clubhouse, and I’m really grateful for this clubhouse,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s a very ‘pro’ clubhouse, and it allows Jackson to go be himself. Everybody’s welcomed him and done their part. But also he’s allowed to be himself and go bring that energy that Jackson brings.”

In the midst of his recent power surge, Merrill has homered off left-handed pitchers in three consecutive games. He hadn’t hit even one homer off a lefty before this stretch. Entering Saturday, the Baltimore native held just a .523 OPS in 75 plate appearances against lefties.

In the Padres’ eyes, Merrill’s ability to hit lefties isn’t a surprise. Shildt said that “he’s been taking good at-bats against lefties all year” and that he’s “clearly shown the ability” to handle the bat against left-handed pitching.

“I don’t even think it’s me feeling more comfortable against lefties; it’s that I’m actually hitting against the lefties,” Merrill said. “ … I’m just getting the opportunities now and showing that I can do it. I’ve always been able to hit lefties. … For me, it kind of just comes naturally -- I don’t think about it too much and just think about the ball coming out from a different side.”

However, as a whole, San Diego’s doldrums against left-handed pitching continued. Following a two-hit performance on Saturday, the Padres’ team batting average against southpaws dropped to .227 (12th in the NL). They are 11-15 against a left-handed starter. For comparison, San Diego leads the Majors with a .274 batting average against righties (with a 26-22 record).

The offensive performance was exacerbated by a short start by Adam Mazur, who walked six batters over 3 2/3 innings in his third career start. Despite the control issues, the Padres’ No. 5 prospect in the MLB Pipeline rankings was able to navigate traffic for the most part, allowing only two earned runs on three hits while striking out four batters.

The trouble for Mazur came in facing the top of the lineup for the third time, as he was chased following back-to-back doubles by Francisco Lindor and Brandon Nimmo. Brought up because of his strike-throwing capabilities -- Mazur walked just nine batters in 51 1/3 innings in the Minors this season -- the uncharacteristic wildness forced him to adjust and bear down to get out of jams.

“I trusted my fastball; it was going really well today,” Mazur said. “So we tried to attack with that. And the offspeed was just inconsistent, which led to walks. … Just tried to go out there and battle and give us a shot to win today. Came up a little short. Obviously, six walks isn’t what you want to do. Get ready for the next one.”