Shohei Ohtani only lasted one round in the MLB Home Run Derby on Monday at Coors Field in Denver, but what a round he had.
The Los Angeles Angels’ two-way star came up short against the Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto, losing 31-28 in a duel that required two tiebreaker rounds.
“I really enjoyed it,” Ohtani said during a televised interview. “This is a really great atmosphere.”
The New York Mets’ Pete Alonso, the defending champion, won the eight-man competition to retain his title. Alonso, who hit 35 in the first round, defeated the Baltimore Orioles’ Trey Mancini 23-22 in the final.
Ohtani started slow but eventually put on the type of show that helped make him a star attraction in the Midsummer Classic.
Ohtani is coming off a first half for the ages, playing at a high level as both a hitter and pitcher. Fellow All-Stars came up to take pictures with him during the derby, then showered him with hugs after his round. At least one All-Star had Ohtani sign some baseballs.
The 27-year-old has taken MLB by storm with 33 home runs and a 1.062 on-base plus slugging percentage as a hitter, and a 3.49 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 67 innings as a pitcher. He also became the first player to be selected for an All-Star team as both a hitter and a pitcher.
Prior to the derby, American League manager Kevin Cash, of the Tampa Bay Rays, said Ohtani would not just hit and pitch in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, but would be the starting pitcher and leadoff man for the AL.
“I didn’t think I would be chosen as a pitcher,” Ohtani said in a news conference earlier in the day. “To be chosen as the starting pitcher is an honor.”
Ohtani, currently the MLB home run leader, was the first Japanese player to participate in the derby.
Soto came in as the No. 8 seed — ranked by the number of home runs — and set the bar for the top-seeded Ohtani with 22.
Ohtani went nearly a minute into his three-minute period before hitting his first homer. He trailed 22-5 when he took a timeout with 1:20 remaining.
After a breather and, according to the ESPN broadcast crew, a call from teammate Mike Trout, Ohtani finished strong. Aided by the one-minute bonus he earned, Ohtani tied Soto at 22.
“I was gassed, I was tired, so I can’t remember fully,” Ohtani said of the conversation with Trout, according to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com. “But I think he just said relax and be yourself.”
A visibly tired Ohtani matched Soto with six homers during the one-minute tiebreaker. The round was decided by another tiebreaker, with each batter getting three swings. Soto homered on all three, while Ohtani failed in his first attempt.
“He gave everything he had, I gave everything I had, it just (went) my way,” Soto said. “It was a fun competition.”
The batters took advantage of the famously hitter-friendly ballpark. Alonso hit moonshot after moonshot, Soto set a record with a homer that traveled 520 feet and Ohtani hit six beyond 500 feet, the most since Statcast began tracking, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“I think it was a good experience,” Ohtani said afterward.
Ohtani will pull double duty in Tuesday’s game, and MLB is even tweaking the rules by allowing him to remain as the designated hitter after he pitches instead of the AL losing the DH.
“This is what the fans want to see,” Cash said during a news conference Monday. “It’s personally what I want to see. To have the opportunity to do something (with) a generational talent is pretty special. I begged Major League Baseball to tweak the rule for (Tuesday’s) game, because if they didn’t, I know I’d screw it up the rest of the way, pulling pinch-hitters and DHs.”
Ohtani will go into the second half of the year in the thick of the race for AL MVP.
He’s the first truly two-way player since some of the stars of the Negro Leagues several decades ago. In MLB, he’s often compared to baseball legend Babe Ruth, another two-way player from yesteryear.
Health may be the most important factor going forward. According to Sam Plum, who covers the Angels for The Athletic, the team may start giving Ohtani more time to rest.
“Joe Maddon said it’s possible the Angels will use Shohei Ohtani slightly differently in the second half,” Blum wrote in a tweet. “One of the changes might be hitting less on days that he pitches. They’ll still have some conversations before the second half.”
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