Amid swirling contract and trade rumors, Nationals superstar Juan Soto showed Monday night in Los Angeles exactly why he’s one of baseball’s best sluggers by winning the Home Run Derby.
In a showdown of two of the game’s top young players, Soto, 23, defeated Seattle Mariners rookie Julio Rodriguez, 21, in the championship round. Soto, who was the highest seed and had the advantage of hitting second, defeated Rodriguez 19-18.
“It feels amazing,” Soto said on ESPN after winning the derby. “It feels tired, first of all, but it feels amazing.”
Soto, who hit 20 homers in the first half of the season, reached the championship match after defeating Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez in the first round and St. Louis’ Albert Pujols in the semifinals. He also had the benefit of being the higher seed in those matchups.
He defeated Ramirez 18-17 by hitting his final big fly as time expired and flipping his bat in excitement after the ball went over the fence at Dodger Stadium. He then edged out the 42-year-old Pujols, who won his first-round matchup over Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber, by a score of 16-15. Pujols, who is retiring at the end of the season, was invited to participate in the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game to celebrate his career.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, had to work much harder for his victories due to being the lower seed. He hit 32 home runs in the first round to beat Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager in the first round and 31 more in the semifinals to knock out Mets slugger Pete Alonso, who entered the night as the two-time defending derby champion.
Monday was Soto’s second appearance in the Home Run Derby. Last year, Soto was the lowest seed in the derby at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, but defeated top-seeded Shohei Ohtani in an epic first round.
The head-to-head matchup last year had two swing-offs to determine a winner, with Soto eventually coming out on top. He then fell to Alonso, who went on to defeat Baltimore’s Trey Mancini in the finals. Soto also set a Home Run Derby record last summer, smashing a 520-foot blast — the longest home run in derby history, according to Statcast.
Soto will continue the fun Tuesday as a reserve in the All-Star Game. Nationals manager Dave Martinez will also be in Los Angeles for the game as an assistant coach for the National League team.