Ohtani can't top Soto in epic Derby duel

Two-way star ties Nats slugger twice, falls in final Round 1 swing-off

July 13th, 2021

DENVER -- The Coors Field crowd groaned in agony as the ball hit the ground. Just like that, the Sho was over.

But even in getting ousted by the Nationals’ , 31-28, in the second swing-off of their first-round matchup in Monday night’s Home Run Derby, had still managed to put on an impressively powerful display.

Especially when you remember he’s the American League’s starting pitcher in Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic.

On the eve of becoming the first player in All-Star history to serve dual roles as a pitcher and a designated hitter, Ohtani had a fun -- but exhausting -- experience on the Derby stage.

“I’m a lot more tired than the season, for sure,” he said afterward through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.

The champion of the 2016 Nippon Professional Baseball Home Run Derby and the first Japanese player to take place in the stateside Derby, Ohtani had, per usual, made waves with his pre-Derby batting practice, launching one homer into Coors Field’s uppermost deck.

But in the Derby itself, Ohtani initially struggled to find his groove, necessitating a mid-round, cell phone pep-talk from Angels teammate Mike Trout, who could not attend the festivities because of injury.

“I was gassed, I was tired, so I can’t remember fully [what Trout said],” Ohtani said. “But I think he just said relax and be yourself.”

The real Ohtani revealed himself over time. Though faced with a daunting 22-5 deficit when he called his lone timeout of the first round and got that call from Trout with 1 minute, 20 seconds remaining, Ohtani wound up launching a respectable 15 homers in that initial 3-minute period, punctuating the effort with a 513-foot blast to right-center field that would be his longest of the night.

“Just getting used to the distance and the speed,” Ohtani said of his mid-round adjustment.

Then, in his one minute of bonus time, Ohtani managed to match Soto, the Nats’ 22-year-old superstar, and his 22-homer total. Ohtani trailed by two dingers with just 10 seconds remaining but finished with a flourish, much to the delight of the sold-out stadium and the millions who had tuned in here and abroad to see this unusually gifted athlete try to live out his Derby dream.

“A lot of people back home in Japan and I wanted to see it personally happen,” he said, “because it’s the first time a Japanese guy is doing this.”

So now Ohtani and Soto were locked into only the second matchup requiring a swing-off since the Derby went to a timed event in 2015 (the first was the epic Vladimir Guerrero Jr.-Joc Pederson duel in Cleveland in 2019).

Once again, Soto batted first in the one-minute swing-off. He went deep six times to push his grand total to 28. Ohtani came up next and, after yanking a few more liners down the first-base line, he found his groove again, connecting on six consecutive swings to tie Soto. But with 15 seconds still remaining on the clock, he wasn’t able to launch what would have been the winner.

That necessitated a second swing-off, and this one allowed each participant three swings apiece. Soto went a perfect 3-for-3 to set a lofty standard. And that’s when the exhaustion finally caught up to Ohtani. His lone swing sent the ball diving toward the first-base line dirt, as Ohtani threw his head back in frustration.

“The last 30 seconds of both the first round and the tiebreaker was really exhausting,” he said. “I was gassed.”

Believe it or not, Monday marked the first time Ohtani had taken batting practice outside all season. With all the demands awaiting him in the All-Star Game -- not to mention the second half of what has been a historic 2021 season -- he had every reason in the world to defer on the Derby. Instead, he was the first player to accept an invite.

Though he didn’t ultimately win it, Ohtani put up what can only qualify as an entertaining Derby display, with plenty more to come in the Midsummer Classic. And with that in mind, the man with so much on his plate at this All-Star Week knew exactly what was on the menu Monday night.

“I’m just going to get as much sleep as I can,” he said.