Howard wins HR Derby title

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Phillies first baseman beat Mets third baseman Wright in the final.

PITTSBURGH -- The Philadelphia Phillies haven't been big winners for a long time. Thanks to Ryan Howard and Bobby Abreu, they're tough to beat in the Home Run Derby.

Howard made certain his first trip to the All-Star game would be a memorable one, beating out the Mets' David Wright to give the Phillies their second derby winner in as many summers.

"That'll give the fans in Philly something to cheer about," said Howard, whose 28 homers at the All-Star break tie him for second in the National League.

Howard finished with a bang. The 2005 NL Rookie of the Year's fifth and decisive homer in the championship round banged off a "Hit It Here" sign above the right-field stands to give a lucky fan 500 free round-trip air tickets.

"I didn't know I'd hit the sign, but that's great," said Howard, who insists he hasn't tried to hit homers in batting practice since playing at Southwest Missouri State.

Howard also hit a ball on the fly into the Allegheny River behind the right-field stands, a feat also accomplished by David Ortiz and Lance Berkman on Monday.

"I was trying to take some good hacks, and it just ended up there," Howard said. "I just tried to relax and make sure it was a perfect pitch."

It has been done only once in regular season play. Daryle Ward of the Astros did it in July 2002 with a drive estimated at 479 feet.

Wright, with Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca throwing to him, had a big edge after the first round with 16, or six more than any other competitor. But he had only six in the next two rounds, and Howard won the final with extra at-bats to spare.

"Once you get past that first round you want to win, so it's a little disappointing," Wright said.

Wright's 16 homers were the third-most of any round in the derby's 21-year history, though he hit eight fewer than Abreu's record-breaking 24 a year ago in Detroit. Abreu went on to win the 2005 competition with 41, or 14 more than any other winner. He wasn't eligible this year after not being chosen for the All-Star game.

PNC Park, with its distant fences in left and left-center and short 320-foot porch in right field, favors left-handed batters, but the right-handed Wright repeatedly reached the seats with ease.

A rules change enacted this year meant Wright's first-round homers carried over to the second round. That gave the Mets third baseman a six-homer advantage over Boston's David Ortiz before any second-round homers were hit, all but guaranteeing Wright a spot in the finals even though he hit only two in the second round.

Howard made a big push to get into the final round, hitting 10 homers in the second round for a two-round total of 18 to tie Wright and bypass Ortiz and Florida's Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera had nine homers in the first round and six in the second.

"I just tried to get locked in, get some pitches and try not to make the last out," Howard said.

The totals did not carry over into the final round, when Howard outhomered Wright 5-4.

Ortiz hit 10 in the first round, down from his 17 of a year ago -- the second most in any round since the event began in 1985. Ortiz's 31 homers at the break are the most ever by a Red Sox player.

But after hitting ball after ball into the Allegheny River on the fly or bounce in the first round, Ortiz fell off by hitting only three in the second round -- just as he did in missing last year's final in Detroit.

Many derby hitters like to bring a preferred batting practice pitcher with them, but Wright might have been the first to rely on a fellow All-Star. Lo Duca tried to locate the ball where Wright likes it the most, down and in.

"I was a pitcher in high school," Lo Duca said. "Now you see why I'm not."

Lo Duca threw to Wright before Sunday's game against the Marlins, and something must have worked as Wright went on to hit his 20th homer of the season. The two also had a batting practice session Monday morning.

As he stepped into the batter's box for the final round, Wright yelled to the mound: "Come on, Dukey. Let's go."

Unlike last year, when the Pirates' Jason Bay failed to homer in Comerica Park, each of the eight competitors homered. Troy Glaus of Toronto finished with one, but the other seven hit at least three.

Eliminated after the first round were Jermaine Dye (7) Miguel Tejada (3), Lance Berkman (3) and Glaus.

Ortiz, Berkman and Howard all found the Allegheny River behind the right-field stands on the fly, a feat accomplished only once in regular season play. Daryle Ward did it for the Astros in July 2002 with a drive estimated at 479 feet.

The fans at PNC Park don't see as many homers as they would like from the last-place Pirates, so they cheered every homer and reacted loudly to any ball that looked river-bound. And while Pittsburgh is an NL city, the biggest cheers and the brightest flashbulb bursts were for Ortiz.

Not only was PNC Park sold out -- the crowd of 38,702 has been topped only once for a Pirates game -- hundreds of fans lined the Roberto Clemente Bridge behind center field for a free but distant view.

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