The real Juan Soto starting to show

Plus, catching up with Mark Merila

May 11th, 2023

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell’s Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

won’t say it. He’s doing everything in his power not to say it. So I’ll take the liberty of saying it for him:

I think the real Juan Soto might be back.

Over the past two weeks, Soto has looked every bit of the fearsome hitter who torched opposing pitchers during his time in Washington. No, he hasn’t lived up to those lofty standards yet in San Diego. But it sure feels like he’s getting there.

In that two-week span, Soto is hitting .400/.547/.700 across 53 plate appearances. He launched his sixth homer of the season -- a 417-foot blast to center at Target Field -- in the Padres’ 4-3 loss to the Twins on Wednesday night.

But it’s more than the numbers that have me convinced Soto might be back. It’s the quality of his contact. When Soto started the season slowly, he was far too pull-happy, pounding the ball into the ground on the right side. Over the past few games, Soto has made expert use of the middle of the field.

“That’s what he’s all about,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “Gap-to-gap, hitting it hard. He's tough to pitch [to] when he's that way, his bat’s in the zone for a long period of time.”

For everything that’s been made about Soto’s early-season struggles, he’s still been the Padres’ best hitter to this point this year. His .860 OPS leads the team, and he’s reaching base at a .406 clip.

Then again, considering what the Padres gave up to acquire Soto at last year’s Deadline, it’s fair to expect more. Soto certainly expects more.

He’s been working tirelessly to iron out his swing, trying to find that stroke that makes him one of the best middle-of-the-field power threats in baseball. After his 4-for-4 night Tuesday -- two doubles, two singles, all to the middle of the field -- Soto was particularly pleased.

“That’s what I’ve always been doing, man,” Soto said. “But the last two years it’s been crazy. I don’t know why but it’s just been crazy.”

Catching up with Mark Merila

The Padres don't come to Minnesota often. But when they do, it's a special series for longtime bullpen catcher Mark Merila.

Merila is a Padres pro scout based in Minnesota, where he scouts at Twins home games. He credits the Padres with saving his life.

A 33rd-round selection in the 1994 Draft, Merila had his playing career cut short by seizures and the eventual discovery of a brain tumor.

"San Diego baseball, the team, the fans, it's all kind of why I'm still here," Merila said.

Merila wasn’t able to play professionally. But the Padres wanted him around, given his overwhelmingly positive demeanor and his passion for baseball. He stuck with the team as a bullpen catcher -- essentially Trevor Hoffman's personal catcher for a decade.

"San Diego is my second family. Every time I get to go there, it's very special," Merila said. (Getty)

In the mid-2000s, Merila battled cancer and was within an inch of his life, eventually ending his run as the bullpen catcher. At the time, the Padres held a team meeting in which players pledged significant sums of money to cover his health costs. Owner John Moores matched that total.

Through decades of health issues, Merila has felt the constant support from Padres fans, and he wanted to make sure the message was passed along: “I was so lucky to be a bullpen catcher for those 11 years,” Merila said. “I'm very humbled. San Diego is my second family. Every time I get to go there, it's very special."

Merila's plan is to attend Moores' and Jake Peavy's induction to the Padres Hall of Fame in July. In the meantime, his son, Boston, is playing collegiately nearby at the University of Minnesota -- where Merila himself played college ball.

This week has been a particular thrill for Merila, as he brought his family onto the field with him for batting practice prior to Tuesday’s opener. He was also eager to meet Josh Hader, and on Wednesday he did so -- proudly informing Hader that he was the first Padre to wear Hader’s No. 71.