- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2021

Juan Soto stepped out of the box and raised one finger toward the sky, where his final hit of the first round was flying. And when that ball fell out of the stratosphere and into the trees beyond the center field fence at Coors Field, Soto let out a yell and fist pump, meeting his Washington Nationals teammates in celebration.

Soto played spoiler Monday night in the first round of the Home Run Derby, upsetting favorite Shohei Ohtani — the dynamic two-way star for the Los Angeles Angels who has hit 33 home runs this season while also pitching to a 3.49 ERA.

The duo put on a show early in the Home Run Derby, captivating a crowd in Colorado through a swing-off, with each batter getting three swings. Soto launched all three of his attempts out of the yard, putting pressure on Ohtani to respond. Ohtani fell short, his first swing blasted into the infield grass, to hand Soto the first-round win that required numerous extra swings.

At the end of the second round — a one-minute period in which both players hit six homers — Ohtani and Soto shared an exhausted hug. They met after the three-swing sudden death round, too, to congratulate each other on a riveting matchup in the Home Run Derby.

“It was just great,” Soto said on ESPN after the round. “He gave everything he has. I gave everything I have. It just go my way. It was a fun competition.”

Soto bowed out of the second round of the Home Run Derby to the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso, who won the 2019 Home Run Derby and posted 35 homers in his first round Monday. Soto appeared fatigued during that round, finishing with 15 long balls. But his showdown with Ohtani was one of the most enthralling of the night.

Soto entered Monday’s Home Run Derby on the back of 11 homers in 79 games across the first half of the season, and his 55% groundball rate is the highest of his career. While many batters worry competing in the Home Run Derby might negatively impact their swings, Soto felt the opposite, thinking a focus on hitting fly balls could be what he needs to ignite in the second half of the campaign.

Soto used a batting stance that was more upright than usual. He began the night slowly but quickly picked things up, blasting a third-deck homer 520 feet. He sprayed balls to all sides of the field, and during his timeout, Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. and Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. joined Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber in giving Soto some advice.

“They were just like, ‘Hey, take your time. You got this. Just come on, man,’” Soto said on ESPN. “And I got it.”

Soto did, returning to the batter’s box to blast 22 long balls through the end of the bonus round.

And while Ohtani entered with 33 homers in the first half of the season, the Japanese star struggled to get started. He had two homers after 1:20 had passed in the first round. But Ohtani heated up late in the round.

In his bonus time, Ohtani launched four of his first five swings out of the park. His final attempt landed just short, but he tied Soto’s count of 22 with two homers in the last 10 seconds. That set up the first swing-off competition, in which Ohtani and Soto both knocked six homers.

And in the three-swing competition, Soto blasted all three swings deep. His final one to deep center field left him raising a finger to the sky with a triumph over Ohtani.

“Just gotta stay calmed down, don’t get too quick,” Soto said. “Just confidence in yourself and try to hit the ball.”

After two overtime periods against Ohtani, though, Alonso proved too much. There had already been so many fireworks from Soto in the first round, leaving an impression on the Home Run Derby.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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