Matched up against Shohei Ohtani in the first round of Monday’s Home Run Derby at Coors Field in Denver, Washington Nationals slugger Juan Soto provided a reminder that he’s every bit the superstar as the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way sensation — at least in the batter’s box.
Admittedly gassed after his marathon first round, Soto managed only 15 home runs in the semifinals and was defeated by New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who eclipsed that total with nearly two minutes to spare.
Alonso, who hit a derby-record 35 home runs in the first round, arrived at Coors Field as the most recent champion after last year’s event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. He slugged his way past Baltimore Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini, who missed the 2020 season after being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer, in the finals, 23-22, to become the first back-to-back champion since Yoenis Céspedes in 2013 and 2014.
Soto, who homered in consecutive games in San Diego last week, entered the break with 11 home runs, tied with Rockies shortstop Trevor Story for the fewest among the eight participants in the derby field. That earned the first-time all-star a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Ohtani, who is scheduled to lead off and start on the mound for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game opposite Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
Ohtani has 33 home runs, the second-most before the all-star break in the last 20 years. The 27-year-old Japanese star was the favorite to win the event and received one of the loudest ovations of the night.
While Soto’s home run production is down and his groundball rate is a career-high 55.4 percent, he’s the same player who deposited a Gerrit Cole pitch onto the train tracks at Houston’s Minute Maid Park in his first World Series game, three days before his 21st birthday. On Monday, with Nationals teammates and fellow all-stars Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner and Scherzer cheering him on, he rose to the occasion again.
After a slow start, Soto mashed 19 home runs in his three minutes of regulation time in the opening round, including a derby record 520-foot blast to right field. Soto, who bowed to Ohtani during player introductions, chatted with his dad and Schwarber before his one minute of bonus time and shouted, “Let’s do it, baby!” at his derby pitcher, Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long, before adding three home runs to his first-round total.
Ohtani used a late surge to force the first of two swing-offs, but he hit a grounder on his first swing of the second tiebreaker to clinch Soto’s spot in the semifinals. The players then exchanged a hug on the field.
“I show him respect, because at the end of the day, it’s just a competition,” Soto said. “After that, we’re friends.”
Mancini, one of the most inspirational stories of the season, led off the derby with a bang, finishing with 24 home runs in the first round. That was just enough to advance to the semifinals, as his opponent, Oakland Athletics first baseman Matt Olson, finished with 23. Mancini advanced to the finals with a 13-12 win over Story, the hometown favorite.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Mancini told ESPN before the final round. “ … I’m really, really appreciating this a lot.”
At times, Alonso looked unbeatable, as if he trained for this and only this, and the season was secondary. He hyped the crowd during his timeouts. He nodded along with the music. If most hitters in the derby try to survive and advance, to keep air in their lungs and keep their swings intact, Alonso seemed trained for the occasion, looking loose and in his element, like a prize fighter bouncing into the ring with his entourage in tow.
Mancini put up 22 homers in the final round, leaving Alonso with a number to beat. “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” blared as he stepped to the plate. He nodded along with it and sang along. Then he stepped in and started chipping away. A minute in, he started rolling. By the time he called timeout, he had 12. He spent most of that timeout dancing. By the end of his regular time, Alonso had 17 home runs, giving him a minute to hit the six he needed to beat Mancini. He barely needed 30 seconds.
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report from Denver.
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