Padres air belief in Jackson Merrill’s ‘superstar’ potential with leadoff start

LOS ANGELES — Michael King was watching the 11th inning of Friday’s game at Dodger Stadium on a television inside the visiting clubhouse when his youngest teammate dug into the left-handed batter’s box. As a seesaw contest hung in the balance, a thought occurred to King, a 28-year-old pitcher who’d started the game for the San Diego Padres and weathered an offensive onslaught to eat five innings.

What was I doing at 20 years old?

It certainly was not what Jackson Merrill proceeded to do, peppering an 0-2 fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Alex Vesia the other way for what would prove the winning hit. Or what Merrill already had done throughout a precocious performance, robbing Shohei Ohtani in legal and spectacular fashion, drawing a critical mid-rally walk and lining a single against Dodgers closer Evan Phillips.

“I think he’s a superstar in the making,” third baseman Manny Machado, who once thrived as a 20-year-old Baltimore Orioles rookie, said after the Padres’ extra-inning victory. “And little by little, you see it every single day.”

Following a 135-minute rain delay Saturday night, Merrill continued his torrential progress as he went from the bottom of the San Diego lineup to the very top. Six days before his 21st birthday, the shortstop-turned-center fielder became the third-youngest Padres player to lead off a game and the 10th major leaguer age 20 or younger in the last dozen years to start in the leadoff spot.

The two Padres ahead of Merrill on the first list: Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and current star right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr.

The other players on the second list: Tatis, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, current 20-year-olds Junior Caminero and Jackson Chourio, and Padres left fielder Jurickson Profar, who was an elite prospect before he underwent a pair of shoulder surgeries.

Before Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Dodgers, Padres manager Mike Shildt and Merrill were asked separately about a seven-spot jump in the lineup. They each used a word that has defined Merrill’s meteoric rise.

“First of all, I do have confidence in Jackson,” said Shildt, who added that veteran Xander Bogaerts was receiving a “well-deserved” break after leading off in each of the Padres’ first 16 games. “He’s done a nice job, taking great at-bats, not making situations — clearly, last night is an indicator — bigger than they are. … It’s just a great opportunity tonight based on our lineup, who’s playing and who they’re throwing to get him out there and let him lead off the game.”

“I think it was a confidence boost for the whole team,” Merrill said of the Padres’ comeback the night before. “I feel like they have a lot of confidence behind me now, too. So, being in the leadoff spot, I don’t think they’re gonna (expect) anything other than just the same hitter in the box.”

Merrill’s confidence is not a recent acquisition. A National League evaluator once described pre-draft interactions with Merrill in the spring of 2021 as similar to business meetings, but in a good way; the then-teenager demonstrated a seriousness about his craft and his goals that helped convince San Diego to take him with the 27th overall pick that July. Before Merrill had made it past Low A, Padres people already were raving about his ability to connect with players from various backgrounds.

“He’s not afraid to say stuff to the 26-year-old guy in Triple A or the 17-year-old kid from the Dominican,” one team official said. “He’ll say it, but his actions follow it.”

In the unique ecosystem of the big leagues, Merrill has appeared to fit in quickly with his blend of swagger and diligence.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a player work as hard as he does,” Machado said. “He’s here early and doing his thing and getting ready for a ballgame every night and bringing that energy at the same time. I look back at it, and I wish I was 20 again. It’s fun to see, man.”

Merrill entered Saturday’s game as a .304 hitter and, despite a near-complete lack of experience at the position, a metrically above-average center fielder. Then, batting leadoff for the first time in the big leagues, he swung at the first pitch from Dodgers starter Gavin Stone —a fastball over the plate — and lined out at 101.9 mph. In his second at-bat, he fell behind on a questionable called strike, worked the count to 2-2 and grounded out at 101.8 mph.

For five innings, those were the two hardest-hit balls of the game.

“He has a great approach,” said Profar, who batted leadoff six times as a 20-year-old Texas Rangers rookie. “And he did great tonight, too. It doesn’t matter the age. He can handle anywhere in the top of the lineup. He always has great at-bats.”

For five innings, Stone also threw a perfect game. Arguably the most noise the Padres made Saturday night came when Profar, a cheerful yet vinegary veteran, took exception to a cutter that almost hit him in the top of the fifth. Dodgers catcher Will Smith responded by objecting to Profar’s objection, the two players began jawing at each other, and both benches and dugouts cleared. Order was restored without any notable physical contact.

Profar explained later that he briefly thought Stone had thrown at him because he had shown bunt against the previous pitch.

“For a moment, I thought so, but he was throwing a perfect game,” Profar said. “He wouldn’t do that.”

He also denied that he had tried to use an extracurricular incident to spark a then-hitless Padres club.

“We don’t need that here,” Profar said. “We have a good team. We don’t need any of that.”

The Padres, after falling to 8-9, can at least claim they are an intriguing team. Toothless in tight games a season ago, they have engineered two monumental comebacks in the past week. And they made things interesting in Saturday’s top of the sixth: Catcher Kyle Higashioka broke through against Stone with a two-out single, Merrill followed with another single (at 102 mph) and Tatis tied the game with a double. Once again, a 20-year-old rookie had delivered in the middle of a rally.

This rally, though, proved short-lived. The Padres scored again in the seventh, but not until the Dodgers had put up three runs in the bottom of the sixth. Afterward, Profar feigned amnesia when asked what was said during his confrontation with Smith.

“I don’t remember,” Profar said with a smile. “I forgot.”

When asked about Merrill, the 31-year-old was more forthcoming.

“He’s so mature for his age, and the one thing that I like personally (is) just the love for the game that he has and the passion that he has for baseball and wanting to get better and wanting to do anything to help the team win,” Profar said. “That’s the kind of player that we need here.”

The Padres broadcast that belief this weekend, thrusting Merrill into the leadoff spot. Sunday might see Bogaerts return to that assignment, and it is unclear how many more chances Merrill will get to bat first in the near future. Shildt, like Profar, was coy after Saturday’s game. (Bogaerts, with a .572 OPS, is off to the slowest start among the team’s regulars.)

Yet, just 17 games in, there is no hiding a certain other conviction regarding Merrill: Not since Tatis burst into the majors five years ago have the Padres felt this strongly about a rookie. Sooner or later, these two players could settle atop the lineup in some order.

(Top photo of Jackson Merrill: Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

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