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Vlad-Joc Derby duel like 'Tyson-Holyfield'

@castrovince
July 9, 2019

CLEVELAND -- When it was over, when Joc Pederson's last-ditch dinger effort hit dirt instead of pay dirt, he and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. embraced near home plate and saluted each other’s exhausting effort in the semifinals of the T-Mobile Home Run Derby. Guerrero, the 20-year-old with Derby deftness in his

CLEVELAND -- When it was over, when Joc Pederson's last-ditch dinger effort hit dirt instead of pay dirt, he and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. embraced near home plate and saluted each other’s exhausting effort in the semifinals of the T-Mobile Home Run Derby.

Guerrero, the 20-year-old with Derby deftness in his blood, had outlasted Pederson, 40-39, on Monday night at Progressive Field in a round that required not one, not two, but three tiebreakers.

It was the first swing-off since this All-Star Game appetizer went to a timed format in 2015, and though Guerrero eventually fell, 23-22, to the Mets’ Pete Alonso in the finals, the Vlad Jr. vs. Joc joust -- much like Josh Hamilton’s Yankee Stadium stunner in 2008, when he wound up losing to Justin Morneau -- will likely be what people remember most about the 2019 Home Run Derby.

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“I believed in God and I believed in myself,” Guerrero said via translation from ESPN’s Marly Rivera after that stunning second-round effort. “That [Pederson] is one hell of a player over there. That was a great show that we put on.”

That both Guerrero and Pederson had traveled to Northeast Ohio specifically for the Derby (neither was selected as an All-Star this season) only added to the allure.

This was what they came for. And, boy, did they make the most of it.

“It was exciting, and that’s kind of what you sign up for,” Pederson said. “It’s fun to compete out there, and I loved it.”

In a Derby with the youngest field ever and $1 million on the line for the winner, Guerrero and Pederson stole the show and had the assembled All-Stars -- and an audience of 36,119 -- on their feet.

“That was one of the craziest back-and-forths I’ve ever seen,” Pirates first baseman Josh Bell said. “That was like Mike Tyson and [Evander] Holyfield. Two heavy hitters. I didn’t know who was going to take it. Joc put on a show, and Vlad took the cake. To be right there on the field and hear the balls off the bat and feel the crowd was great.”

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It seemed pretty straight-forward when Guerrero hit 29 homers to start the second round, matching his record-breaking mark from the first round, when he had bested the 28 hit by Hamilton in the first round in ’08.

After all, who else could possibly hit 29?

Well, Pederson. That’s who. He was sitting on 27 going into the bonus 30 seconds he had earned in the round by hitting two balls at least 440 feet, as measured by Statcast. He wound up tying Guerrero on a long ball that cleared the wall in right-center field with 2 seconds on the clock.

So the swing-off was on.

Guerrero again went first, ripping eight balls into the stands – giving him 37 overall -- and putting Pederson in a tough spot. But the 27-year-old Pederson answered again, tying Guerrero with his eighth homer of the one-minute tiebreaker not just at the buzzer but on a fly ball that cleared the right-center-field wall by mere inches.

“The way he came back,” Alonso said, “that’s just mental fortitude right there.”

In the next round, each hitter was permitted to take only three swings. Guerrero hit one and Pederson, of course, matched him. They regrouped for yet another three-swing tiebreaker.

“He kept tying me,” Guerrero said, “and I was just scared that he was going to beat me.”

In the third tiebreaker, Guerrero went deep twice, upping the ante for Pederson.

The entire crowd -- including Pederson’s brother, Champ, who has Down syndrome -- watched in suspense. The All-Stars and the crowd were now totally enraptured.

“I couldn't imagine three rounds of that,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, who had been ousted by Pederson in the first round. “I was gassed after two minutes of it.”

Pederson slugged one homer on his first swing. He hit a foul ball with his second swing, then let another pitch pass. Finally, he swung hard at the last delivery from Dodgers coach Dino Ebel.

The ball skittered into the ground, and that was that. Perhaps the most epic round in Home Run Derby history was over.

“Insane,” Pederson said. “Just a lot of excitement. … [Guerrero] is one of the most talented hitters in the game. You saw the show he put on. It was just fun to compete against him.”

Pederson admitted he was “toast” after the round. Guerrero, though, had one more round to go, and, somehow, he had another 22 home runs in the tank in the finals. But Alonso outlasted him, hitting the winning blast into the bleachers with 18 seconds left.

So Vlad Jr. vs. Joc was ultimately a footnote in the results. But to those who watched the slugfest, it will have a lasting footprint in the memory. Veteran pitcher CC Sabathia, who is being honored here this week in the midst of his final season, felt the duel could have lasting implications in a sport trying to attract a younger audience.

“That was epic, that was awesome,” Sabathia said. “My 15-year-old was all for it. Even my girls, and they’re really not that into baseball. They were really into the Derby tonight.”

They weren’t alone.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.