Michael Mercado stays composed in first big-league start with calm felt across ballpark

CHICAGO — Michael Mercado didn’t flinch when the 78th and final pitch of his first big-league start landed for a called strike three. The towering righty finishes his motion on the first-base side of the mound, so he floated into the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field. Rob Thomson greeted him there with a handshake. He was done after allowing one run in five innings.

“Tell him you want another inning!” Whit Merrifield yelled in the dugout. The rest of the team joined in the shouting. The kid had done all right. Mercado, 25, laughed.

“Hopefully,” Kyle Schwarber said, “he felt comfortable.”

Later, soon after the Philadelphia Phillies had secured a 6-4 win over the Chicago Cubs for the rookie, Schwarber slapped Mercado’s hand. Then, Schwarber escorted Mercado from the periphery of the postgame celebration on the grass to the head of the line. Schwarber placed him there with two hands. He backed away. Mercado, a 6-foot-4 righty with a laid-back demeanor, accepted the attention.

“Being on such a great team and them having that kind of confidence in you is so big,” Mercado said. “And I think a lot of people feed off of that.”

There is no secret, Mercado said. The Phillies acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays in November in a small trade. They thought he’d be a reliever. They changed their minds on the suggestion of an influential pitching coach who has helped the Phillies transform how they develop arms. They did not expect to need Mercado in the majors this season, then he leapfrogged other reserves in the organization.

He was not perfect Tuesday night. He’ll make two more starts; nothing else is guaranteed. But the Phillies handed him the ball and he looked the part. He fit into this team that has built a nine-game divisional lead. Mercado embodied a brand of confidence the franchise spent years chasing.

“We’re going to have fun and we’re going to win,” Schwarber said. “But, at the end of the day, it’s all him. He wasn’t fazed by anything. He took it by the horns, went out there, and did it.”

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Alex Egan (right) holds a handmade sign showing Michael Mercado and him from their Little League days. He took a red-eye flight with his parents, Dan and Pam, to be at Mercado’s first big-league start. (Matt Gelb / The Athletic)

Alex Egan is a 25-year-old software developer who works for a university in California but, Tuesday, there was nowhere else in the world to be than a few rows behind the Phillies dugout in this 110-year-old ballpark.

He brought his parents, Dan and Pam, with him. They took a red-eye flight from San Diego and arrived in the wee hours Tuesday morning. They hastily made signs. Alex held one with an old photo; he was 7 or 8 years old with his Little League teammate, Michael Mercado.

And the Egans all had new Phillies hats.

“He approaches every situation with so much care and dedication,” Alex said. “Even back when we were kids, he had so much passion for the game. I could just see greatness in him. And I’m so glad it’s happening for him because it couldn’t happen to anyone else better than him.”

Mercado’s parents were in Detroit last week for his one-inning debut in the majors. They could not be at Wrigley for this start. So, Dan and Pam snapped pictures all night and texted them to the Mercados so they could experience it from their perspective. Mercado was tested in his five innings, but he did not break. He looked composed. He was the same kid the Egans had come to love.

“He’s very humble,” Pam said.

“He comes from a really nice family,” Dan said. “He’s very down-to-earth. Just a great kid.”

In the eighth inning, Mercado poked his head out of the dugout to look for Alex. He did not know all of the Egans would be here. It was a great surprise. They scrambled after the final out to get closer to Mercado as he did a TV interview.

They’re going to spend Wednesday morning together in Chicago.

“So much fun,” Mercado said.

Brian Kaplan is in his third year as the club’s assistant pitching coach. He doubles as the director of pitching development, a role that has allowed him to incorporate lessons from years of training elite pitchers at a private facility in Florida. Everything, in Kaplan’s mind, is tied to a pitcher’s body. It is all connected.

This is why Kaplan led a concerted effort to have Cristopher Sánchez, who is authoring a breakout season, add more strength. (He’s now 26 pounds heavier than he was two winters ago.) It is why, when Kaplan saw Mercado in spring training, he lobbied Phillies officials to make him a starting pitcher.

Mercado had been a starter in the Rays organization. He had more success as a reliever in 2023. “We like him better as a reliever,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in December. But the Phillies had given Mercado a new strength program in the offseason. He followed it. He was a different pitcher when he came to spring training.

The Phillies did not have great rotation depth at Triple A. Mercado had a starter’s build and aptitude. Kaplan made his case near the end of camp.

“He thought he might be a good piece for us for depth,” Thomson said. “And thank God he came up with the idea because it’s really worked out well.”

The Cubs brought the tying run to the plate in the third inning. Mercado’s pitch count rose. He ran a full count to Seiya Suzuki. It had been 13 days since Mercado started a game, and he had logged only one inning in that time. This was real physical stress.

He fired 97.3 mph for his 28th pitch of the inning. It was the hardest pitch he threw all night.

Suzuki swung-and-missed.

“That’s one of those pitches where in your mind you’re like, ‘OK, I have to give him my best one here,’” Mercado said. “And that was attacking in the zone with what I think is my best pitch. … To be able to know that I can reach back out and do that when I need it is huge.”

The Phillies are still unsure what to make of Mercado; most rival evaluators see him as a reliever in the majors. He had trouble with command this season as a starter at Triple A. The Cubs had expected to exploit that.

“He did a good enough job throwing strikes,” Chicago manager Craig Counsell said. “That was something maybe we had a chance I thought facing him. … Once he got through that first inning, he did a nice job. We didn’t put pressure on him. We put pressure in the first inning and after that let him off pretty easy.”

Mercado didn’t feel the pressure.

“That’s what’s most important, to have that composure and still compete and not get rattled by anything,” Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said. “So I thought he did a great job.”

The next test is even greater — Sunday afternoon at Truist Park against the Atlanta Braves. He’ll have to throw better strikes. Atlanta will have more intel on Mercado. But, for one night, he did his job. Schwarber pushed the kid.

“Get to the front of the line,” Schwarber said, “and shake everyone’s hand.”

He was one of them.

(Top photo: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

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