07/13/09 11:27 PM ET
Pujols shows heart but bested in Derby
Hometown hero forces Round 1 tiebreaker, edged in semis
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Unfortunately for Pujols and the masses who were eager to crown him Derby champ at an All-Star week that clearly belongs to him, the six homers he hit in the second round were not enough to get to the championship round. Nevertheless, it was a strong effort from the hometown hero."I wish I could have put on a better show for the fans," Pujols lamented afterward. "But I'm thankful for the opportunity to be around these great players." Pujols' performance began with a Derby appetizer. He took part in a "called shot" promotion in which baseball fan Mark Weinberger from Philadelphia predicted Pujols would yank one out to left-center field. Alas, Pujols fell short on two swings, and Weinberger didn't win a prize package that included a new car and a 65-inch flat-screen TV. Perhaps Pujols just wasn't warmed up. When he stepped to the plate as the eighth and final participant in the first round, he homered with a 397-foot blast to left-center on his third hack, but was otherwise quiet through his first seven outs. Then he got hot. He ripped a 416-foot blast just left of center, and a 389-foot wall-scraper on which a fan reached over the wall and hauled the ball in to ensure a homer (no replay was going to overturn this one). Down to his final out and needing two more homers to force a tiebreaker with Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena and Minnesota's Joe Mauer, Pujols delivered. He sent a 400-foot shot to left-center, followed immediately by a 410-foot shot to nearly the same spot. In the tiebreaker, Pujols barely broke a sweat. With one out, he sent two shots to left to advance to the second round, edging Pena's one. The second one was his longest of the night, a 449-foot poke that struck the base of a stairwell in the concourse. With that, the crowd -- particularly Pujols' son, Albert Jr. -- went crazy. "I was nervous a little bit," Pujols admitted. "But God gave me the strength to get those last couple hits." Pujols led off in the second round, but he didn't show much fatigue. He sent three shots to the grassy hill in dead center, a pair of liners to left-center and, most impressive of all, a 432-foot shot to the third deck, above the Big Mac Land sign that he once famously punched out with a memorable Busch Stadium blast. It was not enough. Pujols needed at least the six homers just to tie the eventual champion, Prince Fielder of the Brewers, and the Rangers' Nelson Cruz, who each smacked 11 homers in the first round. The first- and second-round totals are combined, with the two highest totals advancing to the finals. Once Cruz hit his first homer of the second round, Pujols was eliminated. This was Pujols' third appearance in the Derby. He finished second to Garret Anderson in 2003 at then-Comiskey Park and reached the second round in 2007 at AT&T Park. Pujols, who leads the Majors with 32 homers at the break, was working with Pirates bullpen coach Luis Dorante, a fellow native of the Dominican Republic. His usual batting practice pitcher, Cardinals first-base coach Dave McKay, was nursing a bum back and unable to assist. "David McKay [has been] my BP guy since I've been in the big leagues," Pujols said. "I told him that I would love for him to be here tonight. He [couldn't] make it. He went to Arizona." Therefore, Pujols made a call to the 'pen, more specifically to Dorante. So there was an acclimation process involved. Before the event, Pujols said he was going to enjoy the experience, despite the obvious pressure placed on him as the hometown favorite. "I've been the centerpiece," he said, "but I don't let that get in my head."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.