Yoenis Cespedes won baseball's power-hitting competition with a dazzling display Monday night, becoming the first player left out of the All-Star game to take home the crown. The Oakland Athletics slugger beat Bryce Harper 9-8 in the final round at reconfigured Citi Field, hitting the decisive drive with five swings to spare.
In his second major league season, the outfielder from Cuba flipped his bat aside and raised his left arm in triumph when he sent his 32nd homer of the night some 455 feet to centre field, where it caromed off the back wall of the black batter's eye. He was swarmed by the American League All-Stars near the third base line.
"You come for a show in New York. He put on a show," said Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, set to start for the AL on Tuesday night.
The final addition to the field, Cespedes was the fourth player not selected for the All-Star game to compete in the event.
Right off the bat, he proved he belonged. With family in the stands, Cespedes hit a whopping 17 home runs in the first round — more than any other player managed in their first two trips to the plate.
"I felt that I was getting into a very good rhythm, and that as long as the ball was right over the plate, I felt like I was in a good groove," Cespedes said through a translator. "That was the key."
His first-round outburst was enough to send him straight into the finals, though he added six long balls in round two for good measure. Some of his drives were particularly impressive, too.
Cespedes hit about a half-dozen balls into the upper deck in left, never reached by anyone in a game, and banged another couple of shots off the restaurant windows in the corner just below.
The 27-year-old Cespedes has struggled as a sophomore, batting only .225 with 15 home runs, but hardly anyone in the game doubts his ability.
"This trophy will motivate me so that things continue to go well for me, and I just want to thank the people that believed in me, that thought I could play at this level," he said.
The 20-year-old Harper, wearing shiny gold spikes as his father pitched to him, hammered eight homers in all three rounds. But the Washington Nationals phenom couldn't keep up with Cespedes.
"He's incredible," Harper said. "He's an absolute machine."
Colorado outfielder Michael Cuddyer and Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis, who leads the majors with 37 homers, were eliminated in the second round. Davis tied Reggie Jackson (1969) for the AL record before the All-Star break.
"I had a little blister come up second round. It's just one of those things," Davis said. "I usually get one once a year and it just happened to be tonight. It actually popped during a swing. My main concern is obviously not to hurt myself and to hang onto the bat.
"It's something that I've dealt with in my career since I can remember. You've just got to kind of wear it for a couple of days and then it hardens up and you're good to go."
Citi Field opened in 2009 with cavernous dimensions and yielded the fewest home runs in the majors over its first three seasons, according to STATS. But the Mets erected a new fence in front of the old one, dubbed the Great Wall of Flushing, before last season, shaving dimensions by up to 12 feet and lowering the height of the wall from as high as 16 feet to 8 all around.
Since then, the ballpark has ranked closer to the middle of the pack in home runs, 18th out of 30, but it's still no hitter's haven.
In fact, hometown favourite David Wright had joked he would take his Derby swings from second base.
"This stadium may be very difficult, but it's not as difficult as Oakland. And if I can do it in Oakland, I thought, why can't I do it here?" Cespedes said.
Baseball's big boppers took aim at two trucks parked beside the home run apple behind the centre-field fence, a popular staple at Mets games dating to their days in Shea Stadium. Cespedes dinged the hood on one, bringing a rousing cheer.
Cuban reliever Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds brought Cespedes water and a towel during the first round, and 2010 champion David Ortiz strolled over to offer encouragement and advice.
The Rockettes danced atop the dugouts and did their famous kickline between first-round batters.
"It's far different from in Cuba," Cespedes said. "There might be two people at our games. There's only one photographer, and this is completely different and foreign to me. But I'm very happy to be here."
Wright and another hometown darling, Pirates slugger Pedro Alvarez, were both eliminated in the first round. Alvarez went to high school in New York City and grew up in the same Manhattan neighbourhood as Manny Ramirez.
Also knocked out early were defending champion Prince Fielder, the only player besides Ken Griffey Jr. to win multiple crowns, and American League captain Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees, who made Cespedes his final pick.
Cano, the 2011 champion, was booed relentlessly in Kansas City last year after he didn't tab Royals slugger Billy Butler to participate, and the Kansas City crowd was delighted when Cano went without a home run.
He connected on his third swing this time but finished last with only four.
Wright, booed in Pittsburgh last weekend for initially passing on Alvarez, hit five home runs as the sellout crowd of 43,558 chanted "Let's Go Mets!"
"I ran out of gas," Wright said.
Alvarez was added when Colorado outfielder Carlos Gonzalez pulled out with a sprained middle finger. Gonzalez remains in the National League starting lineup for Tuesday night's game, though.
NOTES: Cespedes' home run total matched Ortiz (2010) and Cano (2011) for the third-highest behind Bobby Abreu (41 in 2005) and Josh Hamilton (35 in 2008). ... Davis was credited with the longest drive of the night at 502 feet. ... Oakland third base coach Mike Gallego pitched to Cespedes, who averaged 405 feet on his home runs. He became the first A's player to participate in the Derby since Jason Giambi in 2001 and joined Mark McGwire (1992) as the team's only winners. "Before I left, they asked me to bring home the trophy," Cespedes said. ... The American League topped the NL 53-50. ... Cano showed up at the afternoon news conference in a snappy suit. Harper was in a T-shirt, mesh shorts, sneakers and his spiky mohawk. At least he was dressed in blue and orange, Mets colours. ... By hitting 103 home runs in all, the sluggers raised $529,000 for charity.