Derby hits a home run with riveting rivalry
PHOENIX -- The more things change the more they remain the Yankees vs. the Red Sox. Or, for the other side of the argument, the Red Sox vs. the Yankees.
The 2011 State Farm Home Run Derby featured a change in format, and what appeared to be a strong field of power hitters. But at the end, there were two contestants in the finals from the most familiar of baseball rivals, the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Robinson Cano and Adrian Gonzalez battled it out for the home run championship Monday night, far outdistancing a field of notable sluggers and putting on a remarkable show in the process.
After Gonzalez, the Boston first baseman, put on a top-shelf power display, tying the final-round record with 11 homers, Cano, the New York second baseman, went one better. He hit a record-setting 12 homers in the finals to win the Derby. Cano still had four outs left when he surpassed Gonzalez. It looked as though Cano could stand out there and hit home runs all night, as long as the air conditioning didn't fail.
There were plenty of worthy power hitters in this competition, including David Ortiz of the Red Sox, the 2010 Derby winner; Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers, the 2009 Derby winner; and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, who has hit more home runs that anybody else in the game over the last 1 1/2 seasons.
Ortiz was the American League captain. Fielder was his National League counterpart. They had the honor of choosing the three other players to represent each league.
But the new aspect of this contest, the competition between leagues, never really got off the ground. Of the four semifinalists, only one, Fielder, was from the NL, or, for that matter, from a team other than the Red Sox or the Yankees.
The other three sluggers in the semis were Ortiz, Gonzalez and Cano. Gonzalez and Cano led the contest from front to back, each of them hitting 20 homers over the first two rounds, setting up another Boston/New York contest in the finals.
Cano's victory was a counterpoint to the fact that there are notable absences among Yankees at the 2011 All-Star Game festivities. Two other Yankees who were elected as starters, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, are not here. Rodriguez required knee surgery for torn cartilage. The game's premier closer, Mariano Rivera, is also not on hand. But Cano made certain that a Yankee presence was still center stage.
The second baseman, amid a crowd of the game's biggest names in the Bronx, probably does not get the full recognition he deserves for his all-around brilliant play. But here he won the Derby and won over the crowd with a display of hitting that was impressive both for its power and its consistency.
Cano, a Gold Glove defender, may have been occasionally overshadowed by more established talents on a Yankees roster loaded with star power, but Monday night was a showcase for his own power. With his father, Jose Cano, pitching to him, he simultaneously provided both hitting for distance and a touching familial story,
And Gonzalez was not at all a distant second. There is an argument to be made that, with Albert Pujols having an off-year by his lofty standards, the best all-around hitter in baseball this season is Adrian Gonzalez.
It may be that Gonzalez has been close to this level before now, but it was impossible to tell because he was playing his home games at San Diego's PETCO Park, one of the most pitcher-friendly venues in baseball.
But now, with the Red Sox, Gonzalez is in a place, Fenway Park, where his remarkable hitting abilities can be utilized to the fullest. And he is in a neighborhood, the American League East, where his hitting feats will receive all due attention.
Much has been made, and justifiably, about how Gonzalez's opposite-field stroke is ideal for Fenway. But in the Derby, he got into a power groove with pulled shots into the right-field stands at Chase Field. This is a hitter who is not only powerful, but fully able to adapt to the circumstances presented by the competition at hand.
At the end, the change in the Derby format didn't make a noticeable difference. What made for an especially compelling final round were the power and the persistence of Robinson Cano and Adrian Gonzalez.
In a National League city, in the midst of the American semi-desert, almost a continent away from their baseball homes, this competition still came down to the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.