Pressure? What pressure?
Bryce Harper may have had the weight of Washington sports on his shoulders competing in the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park on Monday night, but it never appeared that that pressure got to him.
Harper defeated the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber 19-18 in the final round to win the derby. The Washington Nationals’ star, the center of attention all week for better or worse, beat Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy in the first two rounds, each by a score of 13-12.
Schwarber swung first in the final round, posting the number Harper had to beat. With a DJ remix of “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas as a soundtrack, Harper came back from an 18-9 deficit with about 70 seconds left to tie the score at 18.
A 30-second bonus given to players who hit at least two home runs 440 feet or longer kicked in, and Harper crushed the first pitch of his bonus period to clinch the win.
During his second timeout, just before coming back from the 18-9 deficit, Harper saw Nationals teammates and fellow All-Stars Sean Doolittle and Max Scherzer.
“I walked over and I saw Doolittle and I saw Max (Scherzer). I said, ‘Max, I gotta hit nine,’ and he goes, ‘No, you gotta hit 10!’” Harper said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, all right. OK, here we go.’”
Harper became the third player to win a Home Run Derby in his home stadium, joining Ryne Sandberg and Todd Frazier.
Harper said before the derby that he planned to just enjoy the night with the Nationals fans in the stands. He received their thunderous applause when he was introduced as the last of eight players. Wearing a D.C. flag bandana on his head and a red, white and blue arm sleeve, Harper came out of the first-base dugout and shook hands with first-round opponent Freddie Freeman as fireworks went off near second base.
Harper’s father Ron served as his pitcher, as he did in the 2013 derby. The left-handed slugger also used a bat with a cherry blossom on Monday as a symbol of Washington.
“I feel like they are known for their cherry blossoms down by the monuments and stuff like that,” Harper said before the derby.
Harper is the only Nationals player to take part in a Home Run Derby. His 23 homers this year have gone an average of 409 feet with the longest 473 feet. Harper was also the only member of the field who had taken part in a previous Home Run Derby. He took part in 2013 at Citi Field in New York and advanced to the final round.
In the midst of a bumpy season in which the Nationals are only 48-48 at the break, the night was an oasis in the tumult both for fans and for Harper.
“I want to win every single game I play,” Harper said. “Off the field, outside and everything like that, that’s the kid in me that you guys saw tonight. I was very fortunate to be able to share that with you guys and show that to you guys and show it to these fans. This wasn’t only for me and my family and everybody like that. This was for the cook and the guy who works the front (desk) and do the work upstairs. This is for the whole city of D.C.”
Rhys Hoskins, the first batter to play in the first round, hit six consecutive pitches over the fence directly following his 45-second timeout. He added another spray of six homers over the final minute to boost himself to 17. Aguilar couldn’t get into a rhythm, and by the end of his third minute, it was clear the No. 1 seed would not match Hoskins’ number. The NL leader for the first half of the season with 24 home runs, Aguilar finished with half that in his lone round in the derby.
Schwarber sent several balls to the upper deck, and for hitting at least two home runs at least 440 feet, he earned the first 30-second bonus of the night. He only tacked on two more dingers in the extra frame, finishing with 16.
During Alex Bregman’s timeout, fellow Astros All-Stars Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Jose Altuve jogged out to help him hydrate and give him a pep talk. But after reaching 15 home runs with 10 seconds left, his last two hits tailed off at the warning track, and Schwarber survived.
When Baez hit consecutive home runs of 479 and 443 feet, he earned the 30-second bonus and used it to jump from 14 to 16 home runs like his Cubs teammate. But Muncy executed a seven-homer streak in the final two minutes of his round to tie Baez at 16, then smashed his 17th to advance.
Freddie Freeman set the bar low, just 12 spread out over his four minutes with several misfires along the way. In less than two minutes of his highly anticipated round, Harper knocked eight over the fence, some to the farthest parts of the field toward center, and he earned the 30-second bonus with a 467-foot tower of a shot. But he didn’t need the bonus time, leaving 26 seconds of regulation on the clock when he hit his round-clinching 13th homer.
Hoskins set a fantastic pace for the semifinals with a second-round total of 20, only one of which was hit during his 30-second bonus. Schwarber only hit three during his first minute but caught up to 12 when he took his timeout with 1:32 to go. A few foul balls nearly sunk him, but he pulled off the comeback, tying and then surpassing Hoskins on his final two pitches as the clock hit zero.
Muncy only served up 12 homers in his second round, the same number Harper had to surpass as the first round. Harper’s total swelled from an early three to 10, and after his timeout, he easily finished the job.
David Driver contributed to this report.