It was Juan Soto’s chance for redemption. After falling to eventual repeat champion Pete Alonso in the semifinals of last year’s Home Run Derby at Coors Field, this year’s event gave the Nationals slugger the chance to be a part of a star-studded field and win it all.
It’s hard to deny Soto twice. And with the eyes of the sporting world focused on Hollywood (including super agent Scott Boras sitting in the front row behind home plate), one of the game’s biggest stars stood on top of it all in more ways than one.
Soto won the 2022 Home Run Derby tonight at Dodger Stadium, beating Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez 19-18 in the finals. Soto joins Bryce Harper, who beat Kyle Schwarber in an electric finale in 2018 at Nationals Park, as the only Nats players to win the Home Run Derby.
“It feels amazing,” Soto said on the broadcast after the win. “All of the hard work I put in and everything. It just feels amazing.”
After hitting the clinching home run, Soto launched his bat in the air in celebration and was mobbed by his father, Juan Sr., and brother, Elian, other Dominican players from across the major leagues, and Nationals manager Davey Martinez, who joined Soto this week as part of the National League coaching staff.
Soto became the second-youngest Home Run Derby winner ever at 23 years and 266 days old, only one day older than the Rangers' Juan González was when he won it in 1993 at Camden Yards.
This victory comes as the superstar arrived in Los Angeles as the center of attention in the baseball world with the news over the weekend that he rejected a 15-year, $440 million contract from the Nationals, who will now entertain trade proposals before the Aug. 2 deadline.
"It feels really uncomfortable," Soto said during this afternoon’s All-Star Game media availability, referring to the news of the rejected offer becoming public. "You don't know what to trust. But at the end of the day, it's out of my hands in what decision they make."
ESPN reported on its broadcast of the Home Run Derby that major league executives believe Soto will be traded by this year’s deadline for “major league-ready players.”
Soto, the No. 4 seed in the homer contest, beat Guardians third baseman José Ramírez, the No. 5 seed, by a score of 18-17 in the first round. His 482-foot blast in the first round was the longest of the night. In the top portion of the bracket, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols upset No. 1 seed Schwarber 20-19 in a tiebreaker, setting up a matchup with Soto in the semifinals.
“It worked out pretty well,” Soto said of his strategy. “I just started concentrating to square all of the balls and try to drive them, because I know I have the power to pull it off.”
The 23-year-old Dominican Republic product beat his 42-year-old fellow countryman 16-15 in the semis to advance to the finals.
“It was amazing,” Soto said of facing Pujols. “I mean, to face one of the legends of the Dominican Republic is one of the things that was the best.”
In the finals, Soto matched up against his 21-year-old fellow countryman, Rodríguez, who upset Alonso 31-23 in the other semifinal.
“Amazing, amazing,” Soto said of his matchup with Rodríguez. “Great young kid. He's got a lot of power. I know he was really tired after the first and second rounds. But he just got the chance to get to the finals and I got the chance to hit after him.”
With former Nats minor league hitting coach Jorge Mejia throwing, Soto hit 53 total home runs, surpassing the 46 he hit in last year’s event. Mejia is also Soto’s offseason hitting coach in the Dominican. Soto won each round via walk-off.
After a sluggish start, Soto caught fire at the plate to end the first half of the season, hitting .250 with a .901 OPS, a major league-best 79 walks and a team-leading 20 home runs. He is currently riding a 26-game on-base streak, over which he’s hitting .338 with a 1.167 OPS, seven home runs, 15 RBIs and 27 walks to just 10 strikeouts.
After last year’s Derby, Soto slashed .348/.525/.639 with a 1.164 OPS in 72 games over the second half of the season. He knocked 18 home runs with 43 RBIs and walked 87 times while striking out just 41 times en route to a second-place finish in NL MVP voting.
Now two questions surround Soto before tomorrow night’s All-Star Game and the resumption of the regular season in Arizona on Friday: Will this Derby crown set him up for another monstrous second half? And will he still be wearing a Nationals uniform in two weeks’ time?
“Right now, I'm not even thinking about it,” Soto said. “I'm a champion and I will be a champion for the Nationals.”