LOS ANGELES – What do you do when you whiff on your first swing in your first Home Run Derby?
You put on a performance memorable enough to make everyone in attendance and watching on television forget the inauspicious start. And you also offer an impressive introduction to the rest of the baseball world on Monday, providing a glimpse of what fans in the Pacific Northwest have experienced and already know – he is baseball’s next superstar.
Julio Rodriguez’s quest to win the annual Home Run Derby in his first try, in what has already been a rookie season that exceeded expectations for the 21-year-old man-child, fell just short in the finals.
Juan Soto of the Nationals, aided by a 60-second bonus round, hit his 19th homer with 30 seconds left in the extra time, surpassing Rodriguez’s total of 18.
Flinging his bat high in the sky when the horn sounded signaling his victory, Soto was mobbed by friends and fellow National League All-stars.
Gracious in defeat, Rodriguez applauded Soto’s accomplishment and then gave him a hug postgame. The two players who hail from the Dominican Republic used to play Call of Duty against each other online a few years ago.
“Just being able to perform on this day, it was pretty fun,” Rodriguez said.
While Soto was the winner, it was Rodriguez who stole the show, earning a boisterous standing ovation from the sold-out crowd in attendance and hugs from his parents, who were watching on the field.
“Really fun,” he said of the experience. “My family was loving it. I feel at the end of the day, everything I do is just to make them proud and make them happy. To just see their faces, they had a lot of joy.”
With his typical on-field intensity accompanied by the intoxicating charisma and megawatt smile, Rodriguez delivered a brilliant performance.
After blasting 32 homers in the first round to defeat Corey Seager and following that up with 31 homers in the second round, knocking off two-time defending champion Pete Alonso in the semifinals, Rodriguez seemed poised to pull off a stunner of a victory.
But in the final round, which is only two minutes, Rodriguez hit 13 homers in regulation. But only one of the balls traveled farther than 440 feet. It earned him a 30-second bonus. In the first two rounds, he hit at least two balls more than 440 feet to earn a full one-minute bonus.
That extra 30 seconds was likely the difference. Rodriguez hit five in the 30-second bonus round.
Soto hit nine homers in the first 90 seconds of the regulation round and then took a timeout. He came back with seven more in the final 30 seconds for 15 at the end of regulation. He wouldn’t need the full minute.
Batting in the leadoff spot of the Home Run Derby, like he’s been doing lately in the Mariners lineup, Rodriguez stepped to the plate as the first hitter of the night. With his friend, Franmy Pena, pitching, an amped-up Rodriguez swung viciously at the first pitch and didn’t touch it. It drew gasps and laughter from the fans. Rodriguez smiled a little at what happened. He fouled off the second pitch into the back of the net, drawing more reaction for the fans.
For Mariners fans, the memory of Bret Boone going homerless momentarily entered their minds. But it was only momentarily. Their precocious rookie was unfazed by it. Similar to the first-month struggles of his career, he knew he’d be fine. He had practiced for the moment, simulating a round in Texas on Saturday, blasting 37 homers in four minutes.
“I wasn’t really thinking about it,” he said. “If you think about it, this is my first time going into the home run derby. I’ve never been into a derby. It was fun to get it out of the way, and for (Pena) too. It was a low pitch, but I still swung at it. After that, I feel we were able to lock it in and have success.”
Indeed, he and Pena found a rhythm. Pena tossed the ball lightly to the inner half of the plate above his belt, the sweet spot, and Rodriguez started mashing baseballs with frightening ease.
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