07/14/09 12:55 AM ET
Prince reigns supreme in Derby
Brewers star tops Cruz in Finals; Pujols thrills home crowd
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
With a sellout red-clad Busch Stadium crowd chanting for the hometown royalty, Albert Pujols, to claim the State Farm Home Run Derby hardware in his own castle, it was the Cardinals slugger's National League Central rival who tore down the ramparts and grabbed the gold.
Fielder, the Milwaukee Brewers' All-Star first baseman, out-homered Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers in the final by a score of 6-5 to win his first Derby in his second try.
"It's what I was expecting," Fielder said of Pujols' home-field advantage. "This is Albert's stadium ... so I was happy I was able to put on a show. And, you know, I'm glad I won."
He also had to be glad that he hit the longest long ball of the competition, a 503-foot moon shot to right-center field in the semifinal round, and the second-longest, a 497-foot blast during his 11-homer first round. Fielder hit 23 balls out of the yard in all, one more than he's hit so far in the regular season, and averaged 439 feet.
"I've never hit a ball 500 feet, so that's pretty cool," Fielder said. "I'm just happy. It was pretty cool to actually win one. You never think as a kid you're going to win one, but I just always hoped I would win one. So to win one tonight is kind of like a dream come true, I guess."
It also was a significant improvement on Fielder's effort in the 2007 Derby at AT&T Park in San Francisco, when he hit three homers in the first round and didn't advance.
Pujols didn't make it past the second round but provided plenty of drama for his fans, rallying from near-elimination twice to keep the dream -- and the flashbulbs popping throughout the crowd of 45,981 -- alive.
The basic format of the contest, as always, is to see how many homers a player can hit before he makes 10 outs -- anything except a homer -- and in the opening round, Pujols had only one homer with seven outs and three long balls with nine outs.
Pujols came up big with no margin for error, however, blasting two more long balls to force a "bat-off" against Carlos Pena and Joe Mauer for the last spot in the semifinals as Busch went wild with chants of "Let's go Albert!"
The fans helped Pujols with more than cheers, too. In the first round, Pujols lined a 389-foot shot that a fan reached over the wall to catch -- a homer that might have been overturned by instant replay if it were in a regular-season game.
Pujols won the bat-off when Pena hit one and Mauer did not hit a homer, but in the semis, Pujols could only muster six more homers, which left him behind Fielder, Cruz and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who all had amassed more over the course of the two rounds.
"Every time you have the opportunity to be in the All-Star Game, it's always fun," Pujols said over the JumboTron after being eliminated.
"I wish I would have put on a better show for our fans, but I just thank God for the opportunity to be around these great players. ... I want to thank these guys, these fans right here."
Naturally, Busch went crazy, and Pujols saluted the crowd before walking off the field.
In the interview room after the Derby, the victorious Fielder gave props to his pitcher for the night, Brewers Triple-A hitting coach Sandy Guerrero.
"I just want to thank Sandy for throwing me good pitches to hit," Fielder said.
Guerrero coached Fielder and Cruz, coincidentally enough, when both Derby finalists played for Double-A Huntsville. The two also broke into the big leagues together in 2005 before Milwaukee traded Cruz to Texas in 2006.
Cruz was buoyed throughout the Derby by Texas teammate and 2008 Derby hero Josh Hamilton, who blasted a record 28 long balls into the Yankee Stadium night last year before bowing out in the final against Justin Morneau.
This year, Hamilton provided moral support that got the Rangers a second straight second-place finish. Cruz tied Fielder with 11 homers in the first round, hit five more in the semis, and rounded it off with five in the final.
"He was telling me to relax, fix my gloves, all sort of things," Cruz said of Hamilton. "He was great. I don't think I could have gotten through that without his help."
Meanwhile, Howard, the "other" hometown guy, having grown up in a suburb of St. Louis, became the partisan choice once Pujols was eliminated, but his two-round total of 15 was eclipsed by Cruz and Fielder, who entered the final with totals of 16 and 17, respectively.
Howard, who won the Derby in 2006 in Pittsburgh, said having his high school summer league baseball coach, Deron Spink, on hand to pitch to him made it all worth it. And the ovation he got wasn't bad, either.
|"I'm just happy. It was pretty cool to actually win one. You never think as a kid you're going to win one, but I just always hoped I would win one. So to win one tonight is kind of like a dream come true, I guess."|
|-- Prince Fielder|
"It felt good," Howard said. "That's one thing about the crowd here in St. Louis. They're always receptive to good ballplayers and just overall good play, period. But for them to give me the ovation I received was awesome.
"I didn't know what to expect, but I'll definitely take it."
Otherwise, the first-round casualties were Adrian Gonzalez of the San Diego Padres, who hit two home runs, and Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge, who was shut out, though he barely missed on his final swing when the ball hooked to the left of the left-field foul pole.
"Some guys I talked to about it said they couldn't have fun because it was too stressful," Inge said. "I loved it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I really would. I'd ask them to do it again.
"I told you I was going to have fun no matter what. You're not going to bring me down."
In addition to the Derby dramatics, there were other elements of the competition that provided intrigue.
A fan participant -- Mark Weinberger of Philadelphia -- was asked to "call a shot" by Pujols before the competition began for a prize package that included a new car and a flat-screen TV. He wisely picked left field and got two tries from the Major League home run leader, but Pujols missed out, hitting a line drive to left and a popup to center.
But Kylie Kochel of the Bethalto (Ill.) Boys & Girls Club was a bit luckier.
She was paired with Fielder to win a $50,000 contribution for a teen center at that club in MLB's annual charity promotion for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Also, State Farm's "gold ball" promotion, which awards money to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for every home run hit with the gold balls that are pitched after a player has nine outs -- there were 10 on Monday night -- helped net a donation of $665,000, more than double the contribution in past years.
In the end, Fielder said he was glad that he was using teammate and fellow All-Star Ryan Braun's bat, and that he was glad he didn't listen to high school critics who told him to ease up on his violent yet sweet home run swing.
"I just know I just have to swing hard," he said. "If I get a good pitch to hit, I just have to swing hard. My swing, it's kind of hard, but it works."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.