It was almost like a passing of the torch, from one of baseball’s most decorated Dominican stars, a 42-year-old future Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career, to a pair of the game’s most prolific, young Dominican sluggers.
Juan Soto, a 23-year-old Washington star who has already won a World Series ring and recently turned down a 15-year, $440-million extension offer from the Nationals, beat Seattle Mariners rookie phenom Julio Rodríguez, 21, to win the All-Star Game home run derby in Dodger Stadium on Monday night.
After failing to produce a homer in the first 10 swings of the final round, the left-handed-hitting Soto regained his power stroke, sending one drive 471 feet into the right-field pavilion, to hit 19 homers in the two-minute round and one minute of bonus time.
That was one more than Rodríguez, a fellow Dominican who mashed 32 homers in a first-round win over Rangers shortstop and former Dodger Corey Seager and 31 bombs in a semifinal win over two-time defending derby champion Pete Alonso of the New York Mets.
But to produce the first derby final between players 23 and younger, Soto had to eliminate a grizzled veteran and sentimental favorite who is nearly twice his age and was a surprise entrant in the semifinal round: Albert Pujols.
“He was one of the first Dominicans to put our country on the map,” Soto said of Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger who played most of the past 10 seasons for the Angels before finishing 2021 with the Dodgers. “I feel really proud to continue the next generation after he carried it for more than 20 years.”
Pujols, participating in his fifth derby, was so sure that he would be eliminated after accumulating only 13 homers in his first-round matchup with Philadelphia slugger Kyle Schwarber that he gave his batting gloves to Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove’s cousin.
And his fellow All-Stars were so sure that the 22-year veteran, who is expected to retire after this season, would be done after one round that they all streamed toward home plate to envelop Pujols in a group hug in what appeared to be a farewell salute.
But Schwarber, who leads the National League with 29 homers, struggled to find the outfield seats and hit only 13 homers, forcing a one-minute, tiebreaking swing-off.
Pujols, who called timeout early in the first round to switch to a lighter bat, got his batting gloves back, found a second wind and crushed seven homers to Schwarber’s six to advance to the semifinals, where he lost to Soto 16-15.
“Oh, that was a really special moment,” Soto said of the Pujols salute. “This could be his last derby and All-Star Game, so we should be there for him and give him some power so he can keep going.
“We all know his skills are going down a little bit, but when you cheer for him and give him that positive energy, things can change, and he showed up after that. Winning that round was amazing. I think it was a special moment for him, and even for ourselves, to see a legend go out like that.”
Pujols expressed gratitude to the fans in Chavez Ravine, where he provided a key bat off the bench and was a mentor to so many Dodgers players last season.
“I want to thank all the Dodgers fans for your support,” Pujols said in an on-field interview with ESPN. “This is for you guys. God bless you. It’s awesome to come back here one last time. I’m honored and humbled, and I’m glad to put a smile on the faces of the fans, because that’s what it’s all about.”
— MLB (@MLB) July 19, 2022
Soto, who hit a record 520-foot homer in last summer’s derby in Colorado, hit one 482 feet in his first-round win over Cleveland’s José Ramírez.
“It feels good, and it feels bad at the same time,” Soto said, when asked what it’s like to hit a ball 482 feet. “Because you hit it, and you don’t have the time to see how far it goes. But it feels really amazing at the end of the day when you see the video and see how far it lands. It’s really impressive what my skills can do.”
The same can be said for Rodríguez, who demolished Seager in the first round and had little trouble dispatching Alonso 31-23 in the semifinals.
“I had so much fun out there,” said Alonso, who hit a 480-foot shot that caromed off the roof and over the left-field pavilion in a first-round win over Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. “I thought I put up a great performance, but J-Rod, I mean, he was just better tonight. He was absolutely electric.”
As was Soto.
“This just tells you how much talent is coming up, not only in the Dominican Republic, but in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the entire Caribbean,” Soto said. “We’re starting to see the stars getting younger and younger, and that makes me proud.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.