— Alexis Brudnicki (@baseballexis) June 20, 2017
The two teenagers from the Dominican Republic brought a special combination of power, excitement and fun to the home of the Great Lakes Loons—the Dodgers’ affiliate and Rincon’s regular season field—and gave a crowd that stuck through hours of rain delays everything it had been hoping for through three hard-fought rounds of competition, eventually seeing the Loons outfielder take the crown.
“This is more fun that I can imagine,” Rincon said through his manager and translator Jeremy Rodriguez. “Every time I hit a home run I could feel the energy from the crowd screaming. That just gave me more energy to hit home runs, because I love the energy from the fans, and the fans definitely helped me win tonight.”
The derby consisted of three rounds, beginning with eight players. In the first round, Rincon hit five home runs while Blue Jays prospect Guerrero Jr. paced the competition with eight, and the two advanced with Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. and Tigers farmhand Blaise Salter. The 19-year-old Great Lakes’ right fielder led the second round with 13—and nine in the first minute—with Guerrero Jr. advancing to the third with 11.
“Going first, I knew I had to set the tone and raise the bar a little bit,” Rincon said.
After two three-minute rounds, a minute was added to the clock for the final. Rincon absolutely dominated the third round, hitting 20 home runs in his 240 seconds, taking out his competition.
“I felt really good in the last round,” Rincon said. “I felt like it was honestly my duty, as a Loon, and we’re at home. I feel like I didn’t put pressure on myself but I needed to win it, especially in that last round, so I put a little bit more oomph into it . . .
“And with Vlad Jr., I knew I had to hit more than 15 home runs to win it. I knew that if I hit less than 15, it was definitely going to be close, but if I hit more than 15, I was going to take it.”
Rincon ranks among Midwest League leaders with 11 homers this season, and the native of Santo Domingo was added to the event upon suggestion from his manager, who knew the chances were in his favor to keep the derby trophy at Dow Diamond.
“I had a good feeling he was going to win,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve thrown (batting practice) to him for the last three months, and I was talking to a lot of the (Dodgers) coordinators up top and they were even saying, ‘If Rincon’s in, he definitely has a chance,’ because his swing path is a home run swing path. When they asked me (for suggestions) for the home run derby, my first person was definitely Carlos Rincon.”
The derby helped Rodriguez see a more relaxed side of his young player, and he hopes it was an indication of the success still to come.
“His first round, he was trying to hit home runs,” Rodriguez said of Rincon. “I could tell (later) he was getting a little bit tired. He was just using his hands, which actually was a valuable lesson for us, because now we can tell him, ‘Carlos, you don’t have to try to hit home runs, just do the same thing you did the last two rounds of the derby and you’ll be fine.’
“You can tell he was just taking nice, easy swings. The thing he doesn’t realize yet for a 19-year-old is that he has scary power. And it comes to life when he doesn’t try to use it.”
Though Guerrero Jr. didn’t win the contest, some of the loudest and farthest balls traveled off the 18-year-old’s bat, who not only had his father in attendance for the event but also Dante Bichette rooting for him from the stands after Bichette’s son and Guerrero Jr.’s fellow Lansing infielder Bo had to turn down the derby because of back tightness.
“His swings are violent,” Rodriguez said of Guerrero Jr. “They’re very aggressive; very exciting to see. I saw Vladimir before he signed, in the Dominican, I was working in the Dominican Republic with the San Diego Padres. So seeing him evolve into the player he is now is really scary. It’s really scary because I know he has more in him, and I know he has more years to come.
“When he’s in the big leagues, he’s going to be one of those guys who are danger hitters, that you know when he takes a swing, everyone is going to be like, ‘Oof.’”