Soto becomes 2nd-youngest Derby winner ... by a day

July 19th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- The last time Juan Soto was at Dodger Stadium, he was sitting in the front row during the National League Wild Card Game, rooting on his former teammates Trea Turner and Max Scherzer.

During that visit, Soto tweeted he didn’t know that homers “look so fun from the stands.” On Monday, Soto gave the Dodger Stadium crowd a show of his own, beating Mariners star Julio Rodríguez in the finals to become the second-youngest player to win the Home Run Derby -- one day older than Juan González was (23 years, 265 days) when he won in 1993.

Soto, who said he had “a lot” of family in attendance, dedicated his win to his support system. 

“It’s really exciting. I’m really excited and proud of what I just accomplished,” Soto said. “My family has always been with me and they keep things really positive for me. I honestly never thought I’d get this far, but thanks to them, here we are.”

Soto is the second Nationals star to win the Home Run Derby in the last five years, joining Bryce Harper, who took home the honor in 2018 in front of the home crowd at Nationals Park. Both Nats champions won the Derby in walk-off fashion by the exact same score, 19-18.

The 23-year-old superstar also became the sixth Dominican-born player to win the Derby, joining Sammy Sosa (2000), Miguel Tejada (2004), Vladimir Guerrero Sr. (2007), David Ortiz (2010) and Robinson Canó (2011). While Soto took home the trophy, three of the four semifinalists (Albert Pujols, Rodríguez and Soto) were born in the Dominican Republic.

“[Winning the Derby] is something special, but it means more because I did it for the Dominican Republic,” Soto said. “The people there are always supporting me and they’ve been there every step. I know all their prayers are heard and today I heard them more than ever.”

With Soto leading the way, the first Home Run Derby ever held at Dodger Stadium lived up to the hype. Rodríguez stole the show from the onset, becoming the first player in Derby history to hit 30 or more home runs in multiple rounds.

Another special moment took place after Pujols’ first round of the Derby. Participating in his last All-Star Game before retiring at the end of the season, Pujols was treated to a standing ovation by the Dodger Stadium crowd. Every All-Star in attendance huddled around the future Hall of Famer to show their appreciation for one of the best careers in Major League history.

“That was a really special moment,” Soto said. “We all know his skills are going down a little bit, but when you cheer for him and give him that direct positive energy, that can change things, and he showed up after that. … I think it was a special moment for him. And even ourselves to see the legend go out like that.”

While the Derby didn’t have a shortage of special moments, in the end, it was Soto’s ability that shined brighter than the rest.

Soto drew Guardians star José Ramírez in the first round and handled him easily, beating him 18-17, without needing to use his bonus time slot. His 17th homer of the round traveled 482 feet, the longest homer hit during Monday’s competition. Soto holds the Derby record with a 520-foot blast in '21 at Coors Field.

“It feels good, and it feels bad at the same time,” Soto laughed, when asked what it feels like to hit a 482-foot homer. “Because you hit it and you don’t have time to see how far it goes. But it feels really amazing at the end of the day when you see the video and see how far it lands. It’s really impressive what my skills can do.”

After beating Ramírez, Soto, who lost in the semifinals last year to eventual champion Pete Alonso, got a chance at redemption. This time, he was able to get past the semis by beating Pujols, who knocked off No. 1 seed Kyle Schwarber in the first round. Fifteen of Soto’s 16 semifinal homers traveled over 400 feet.

Competing against Pujols was a particularly satisfying moment for Soto, who grew up idolizing him. Over the years, Pujols has become a mentor to Soto, who also hails from Santo Domingo. Soto appreciates Pujols so much that during the round, he leaned over to Mets outfielder Starling Marte and asked him if he should let the 42-year-old win.

In the end, Soto took care of business, and the two Dominican sluggers met at home plate and shared a long exchange. With 685 career homers, Pujols is the most accomplished Dominican-born hitter in Major League history. At just 23 years old, Soto has drawn comparisons to Pujols and has the ability to give the longtime slugger a run for his money.

“He was one of the first Dominicans to put our country on the map,” Soto said in Spanish. “I feel really proud to continue the next generation after he carried it for more than 20 years.”

In the finals, a tired Soto got off to a slow start. But after taking a timeout with about 90 seconds left in his round, Soto found a late surge at the end of regular time to narrow the deficit to 18-15 against Rodríguez. In the 60-second bonus round, Soto hit four home runs, tossing his bat up in the air.

“We used to play Call of Duty all the time together,” Rodríguez said. “It was pretty cool going up against him.”

During Soto's post-Derby interview on the field, global icon Bad Bunny ran up behind him, giving him a Derby champion gold chain.

“When I went to one knee, I was looking for power to flip my bat,” Soto said with a smile. “I had no power at all. I saw the scoreboard change and show you’re the champion. It felt amazing.”

Five hours before the Derby, Soto spent nearly an hour talking about his future with the Nationals. He answered just about every question regarding his future, trade destinations and money. Around him, every other player in the All-Star Game said they would love to have Soto.

He showed the world why on Monday.