Image credit: Juan Soto (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES—Juan Soto’s day began less than pleasant.
Days after reports emerged that he turned down a $440 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, Soto spent more than 45 minutes on Monday afternoon seated behind a podium in the center field plaza at Dodger Stadium answering questions about his future. The 23-year-old outfielder used phrases like “tough”, “frustrating” and “really bad” to describe the situation, while saying “you don’t know who to trust.” With trade rumors swirling, he’s well aware he could be in his final weeks as a member of the organization that signed him at 16, nurtured him and helped him develop into one of baseball’s brightest stars.
By the end of the night, all of those negative emotions had dissipated. If he had any lingering frustrations, they were long gone by the end of the Home Run Derby.
Soto smashed 19 home runs in the final round to beat Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez in the finals and win the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium. Soto became the second-youngest player to ever win the derby. Juan Gonzalez was one day younger when he won the 1993 Home Run Derby.
“I’m a lone survivor,” Soto said. “I’ve been going through all this stuff and I’m still here standing up with my chin up all the time. And that shows you I can go through anything.”
Soto defeated Jose Ramirez, 18-17 in the first round and Albert Pujols, 16-15, in the second round. He hit the longest home run of the event at 482 feet and showcased his all-fields power with 11 home runs to the opposite field.
In the finals, Rodriguez hit first and recorded 18 home runs to put a capper on a historic showing. Soto hit 15 home runs through regular time and added four more to win it in bonus time, blasting the winning home run 415 feet to right-center with 20 seconds remaining on the clock.
Soto fell to one knee on the winning swing. As the ball sailed over the fence, he flipped his bat high in the air and ran to the mound to celebrate.
“When I went on one knee I was looking for power to flip my bat because I had no power at all,” Soto said, chuckling. “When I saw the ball land and go, it just felt amazing. I saw the scoreboard change and show you’re the champion, it just felt amazing. It’s a lot.”
For most of the two and a half hours leading up to the finals, it was Rodriguez who owned the spotlight.
The 21-year-old Mariners rookie announced his presence with authority immediately, leading off the derby with 32 home runs. Half of his home runs went at least 420 feet, with his first blast standing up as his longest at 463 feet. He put himself in the Derby record books with the fourth-most home runs ever hit in a single round, and departed to a standing ovation.
“It was really fun. I just came out to have a great time and hit some bombs and just enjoy it,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like that’s what I did. I feel like I accomplish my mission whenever I step on the stage right here.”
While the Derby’s youngest contestant stole the show at the start of the first round, its oldest contestant took the spotlight at the end of it. Albert Pujols, 42 and competing in his last Home Run Derby, hit 13 home runs in the first round in what appeared to be too few to advance. Both all-star teams, in anticipation of him being knocked out, surrounded him and congratulated him on his decorated career. But Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber unexpectedly struggled following Pujols and didn’t hit his 13th home run until the final seconds to force a tiebreaker. Pujols came out in the tiebreaker and found his groove, bashing seven home runs in a minute to build a commanding lead. Schwarber fell short with only six home runs in the tiebreaker, sending Pujols to the semifinals against Soto.
But while Pujols lost his momentum, falling to Soto 16-15 in the semifinals, Rodriguez maintained his. He followed up his mesmerizing first round with 31 home runs in the second round, a number even two-time defending champion Pete Alonso couldn’t catch. Alonso followed Rodriguez and fell off his pace immediately. Even after a late rally, Alonso finished with just 23 home runs, sending Rodriguez to the finals.
In his first Home Run Derby, Rodriguez did what no one else could do before him—eliminate Pete Alonso.
“When I figured out I was going to go up against him I felt like I had do kind of do my part and compete with the best I had,” Rodriguez said. “I felt like it was very fun to kind of take him out.”
Once Soto followed up by beating Pujols in the other semifinal, it set up a matchup between two young Dominicans and longtime friends. Rodriguez and Soto played the video game “Call of Duty” against each other for much of the last two years, and they still exchange trash talk with each other about the game.
When it came to their competition in the derby, however, it was nothing but respect.
“He’s an amazing young talented player,” Soto said. “What he did is just amazing. How many homers he hit in the first round, he helped me out a little bit because he got tired, but he’s just an amazing player. He can do it all.”
In the end, it was Soto who emerged as champion. At 23, he now has a World Series ring, a batting title and a Home Run Derby title.
His future will become clearer in the coming weeks. But as he sat in the afterglow of his Home Run Derby championship with his trophy by his side, he was able to take a moment and relish the present.
“It feels great,” Soto said. “It’s another thing to add to my trophy case, and I’m going to have it there forever. I’m going to be a Home Run Derby champion forever.”