Back in spring routine, Darvish deals in debut

February 27th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Making his first Spring Training start in nearly two years, was excellent Tuesday afternoon, pitching two scoreless frames while striking out three in the Padres’ 6-3 victory over the Royals at Peoria Stadium.

Darvish would never trade the experience of winning the 2023 World Baseball Classic with Team Japan. But for a pitcher as meticulous about his buildup as Darvish, there’s a clear benefit to these spring starts.

“Obviously, this is a good time for me,” Darvish said through interpreter Shingo Horie. “You’re able to work on your craft, work on what you want to do in game situations. Just being able to go into games like this and work on that, it’s obviously really good for me to prepare myself for the season.”

Darvish didn’t get that last year. In the knockout rounds of the WBC tournament, he pitched only twice in relief for Team Japan. His entire buildup was thrown out of whack as a result. When Darvish arrived at Padres camp in late March, the days were running out, and he pitched only one back-field “B” game. He pitched another simulated game after camp broke, then started the regular season at the back of the rotation.

This year is different. Darvish is building up for what appears to be a start in the second game of the season against the Dodgers in Korea. (There’s been no announcement regarding the team’s plans, but he’s currently following Joe Musgrove in the spring rotation. The two of them are lined up for the final two Cactus League games, then, in theory, those two games in Seoul.)

Darvish is coming off a stress reaction in his right elbow that ended his 2023 season. But he has been fully cleared for more than two months and said he has felt no effects of the injury. Darvish used nearly all of his pitches Tuesday, letting new catcher Kyle Higashioka take the lead in game-calling.

Darvish retired the first five hitters he faced before allowing a pair of two-out hits in the second inning. He escaped the jam when center fielder tracked down Cam Devanney’s deep fly ball.

“It’s the first Spring Training game,” Darvish said. “So it’s more about trying to remind yourself what this atmosphere is, trying to get back in game action. I wasn’t really conscious too much about: ‘I’m going to do this or that in the game.’ It was just about feeling the game again.”

Merrill patrols center
The Padres wanted to see Merrill tested in the outfield this spring. They’re getting their wish.

Merrill, the club’s No. 2 prospect in the MLB Pipeline rankings, is eyeing a spot as the team’s starting left fielder. But on Tuesday, he got his first action in center. That experiment went well, with Merrill tracking down a couple fly balls. He also fielded two more hits -- a double and a single in the fourth inning -- without any issue.

A career shortstop, Merrill’s likeliest path to playing time is in left. Center field is a much tougher challenge, and the Padres have some rangy options for the position.

Still, the more versatile Merrill is, the more he can help the Padres’ roster. He is continuing to get reps at shortstop during morning workouts. But in games, Merrill has played the outfield exclusively. His transition has been a smooth one.

“It feels just natural out there,” Merrill said last week. “I’ve got more space to work with, more space to run around, more space to have fun.”

Tatis at the top
has been atop the Padres’ lineup in all four of his starts this spring. Is there anything to read into that, Mike Shildt?

“It’s as much a function of getting him those at-bats,” said the Padres manager. “But I can’t deny that there’s a look there that we’re taking into serious consideration.”

Tatis batted second for much of the 2023 season. But he thrived in the 45 games he spent atop the order. Tatis posted an .885 OPS out of the leadoff spot, compared with a .715 mark elsewhere in the lineup. When leading off a game, Tatis had a slash line of .359/.444/.615 with a pair of homers.

“This is a guy that could hit anywhere toward the top of the lineup,” Shildt said. “But I do like the idea of: Our first time up, you’ve got to face Fernando Tatis. That’s appealing. There’s a chance you get punched in the mouth right away.”