Arozarena makes a run at Vlad Jr. in close Derby final

Rays slugger, friend García fulfill dream of participating in Derby ... vs. each other

July 11th, 2023

SEATTLE -- Whatever the outcome for Rays star Randy Arozarena in Monday’s T-Mobile Home Run Derby, you knew he was going to enjoy the bright spotlight.

“This event was made for him,” Rays left-hander Shane McClanahan said.

Clad in his lucky cowboy boots for the pre-event introduction, Arozarena switched to spikes and put on a power show, dispatching his friends and fellow Cubans Adolis García of the Rangers (24-17 in Round 1) and Luis Robert Jr. of the White Sox (35-22 in Round 2) before falling to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in a close final, 25-23.

“I’m trying to have fun,” Arozarena said as the day began. “But I’m also concentrating on hitting a lot of home runs. I want to win.”

He succeeded on the first two fronts. With his second-round performance, Arozarena became the sixth player to have 30-plus homers in a single round of the Home Run Derby. He joined Mariners star Julio Rodríguez, who has three, including his 41-homer opening round on Monday, plus Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, Pete Alonso and Joc Pederson.

In the final round, Guerrero went first and put up 25 home runs. Arozarena, with Rays field coordinator Tomas Francisco feeding him batting practice fastballs, put himself within striking distance with 20 homers in the initial two-minute period, but couldn’t push over the top in a 30-second bonus round, making Guerrero the champion after he finished runner-up in 2019.

The experience, Arozarena said, was “a great honor.”

“As far as my thought process, I was just trying to get into a rhythm,” he said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to win the thing, but I’m proud of my performance.”

The matchups against Garcia and Robert Jr. were befitting a showman. Arozarena and García have a bond going back to their days growing up in Cuba and later in the Cardinals' Minor League system, where they were roommates during their first Spring Training. They have continued to talk or text every day as they have evolved into stars in Tampa Bay and Texas, respectively.

Robert is also from Cuba, and it was Arozarena and García who together convinced Robert to participate in the event in the first place.

And in the final round, Arozarena faced a familiar American League East rival in Guerrero Jr., who, critically, earned the full minute of bonus time by virtue of his tape-measure home runs. In the end, that time proved the difference.

“Going against those three guys, I’m a little bit skinnier than those guys,” Arozarena said. “I tend to go against the grain.

“But it was a lot of fun being able to go up against them and compete against them.”

No matchup meant more than Arozarena versus García, boyhood friends who remain as close as brothers, so much so that Arozarena named García the godfather to his daughter. The two still talk every day, according to García. For years, Arozarena said, they have talked about someday participating in a Home Run Derby, never considering that they might find themselves matched up in the event.

After years together with the Cardinals, they went their separate ways beginning in December 2019 when St. Louis designated García for assignment and traded him to the Rangers, but he was DFA’d again the following winter, by which time Arozarena had become a star.

The Cardinals traded Arozarena to Tampa Bay in January 2020, and he blossomed that year, winning 2020 ALCS MVP honors amid a remarkable, 10-homer postseason. By 2021, García emerged as an All-Star, and both players were thriving.

“We did talk about one day sharing the field in an All-Star Game,” Arozarena said. “When it comes to the Home Run Derby, hopefully I beat him.”

Said García: "I think whoever wins between the two of us, wins the Derby."

Those words were nearly prophetic.

“Adolis, I told him I was going to beat him in that first round. He’s a great friend of mine, but I told him I was going to beat him. To be able to do that and move on to the second round was something really cool.”

Upon elimination, García joined his friend’s support group. At times during the event, he held his goddaughter in his arms.

“It’s a healthy relationship,” Arozarena said. “First as friends and then as players growing up with the Cardinals, we played the same position, and it was always healthy. We gave each other advice. We dreamed of one day doing what we’re doing today and tomorrow.”