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In Derby, Cespedes thrust into national spotlight

Outfielder's contest-winning power display familiar to Oakland A's teammates

NEW YORK -- When his Oakland teammates learned Yoenis Cespedes had been invited to participate in the Chevrolet Home Run Derby, they had zero doubt he would win. That's because the A's see his strength and power almost every day in batting practice. They still stop and stare as one of Cespedes' home runs screams off his bat and soars into the evening sky.

There's no way to estimate where those home runs will land, because they seem to have a second gear and then sometimes a third. In other words, they just keep going.

And there are the line drives. Scorching line drives, hit hard and low, hit so hard they maintain a laser-like trajectory until they hit an outfield wall or a facade.

Given his quickness and vision and hands, Cespedes might just be the perfect hitting machine, at least the perfect home-run hitting machine. He simply has gifts that few others have.

This isn't all good. Cespedes has had a frustrating second season in the Major Leagues. At times, he seems too focused on -- you guessed it -- hitting home runs.

Or Cespedes could feel a responsibility to his team. When he returned from 15 days on the disabled list in April, three of his teammates -- Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Chris Young -- were injured. In the weeks that followed, Cespedes seemed to want to single-handedly put the A's on his shoulders.

It's this kind of thinking that gets hitters into trouble. Baseball is that strange game in which the balance between aggression and patience is delicate. Cespedes hit .223 in April, .220 in May and .232 in June. At one point, A's manager Bob Melvin dropped him from fourth in the batting order to fifth or sixth.

Melvin called it "a change of scenery," predicting it wouldn't last long. Still, Cespedes entered the All-Star break hitting .225, which is a 67-point decline from last season. He'd made the game look easy in 2012, when he batted .292 with 23 home runs in 129 games. Cespedes led the A's in on-base and slugging percentage.

On Monday night, an entire nation had the opportunity to see his special gifts. From the moment Cespedes stepped into the batter's box at Citi Field, he began putting on a show.

Later, he would call it just that. A show. One moment, he'd deliver a towering moonshot of a home run. And then it would be one of those low liners, the kind that seem to be about three feet off the ground when they leave the infield and soar out of the park.

Cespedes defeated Bryce Harper in the finals, hitting 32 in all at an average distance of 405 feet in an eight-player event that raised $529,000 for charity. Cespedes smoked the competition with 17 home runs in the first round, most of them long, towering shots into the second or third decks of Citi Field. In the finals, he watched Harper hit eight home runs, then stepped in and promptly hit nine, leaving five of his 10 allotted outs on the table.

There were towering shots that cleared the center-field wall by 30 feet or more. One of them bounced off one of the two new 2014 Chevrolet Silverados on display in center. And just when fans were still trying to put their minds around that one, Cespedes would launch a line drive off the stadium club behind the left-field pole.

Cespedes' most impressive one might have been one of those line drives that rocketed out of the infield and hit inches above the orange homer line in left field. All in all, it was a show worthy of a national stage.

At 27, Cespedes is the first player not named to an All-Star team to win the Derby. He does have 15 home runs, but that .225 batting average is not going to win him a spot on many All-Star teams.

Despite Cespedes' struggles, the A's are 56-39 and leading the Texas Rangers by two games in the American League West. If he can rediscover last season's magic, the A's would feel even better about their chances of winning a second straight division championship.

Cespedes said he wasn't worried about his first-half slump, because he'd had plenty of them throughout his career.

"In Cuba, I played nine seasons, and the first halves were always poor," he said. "The second halves were always my better ones. So I'm not really worried, because I believe that will happen again."

The A's are hoping that's the case. They need Cespedes' production. They need his presence in the middle of the lineup. They know he's capable of amazing things. They saw them again and again in 2012. And they saw them Monday night.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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