MINNEAPOLIS -- If not for a phone call from the college coach who recruited him, Luken Baker wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to hit at USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars. And he wouldn't have been part of the Gillette Home Run Derby festivities Monday night at Target Field.
Baker won the preliminary portion of the Junior Home Run Derby on Sunday morning at Target Field, defeating eight other players. Using metal bats, he and Josh Naylor each went deep six times while making 15 outs in the first two rounds, and Baker won the tiebreaker by homering twice in three swings, while Naylor went 0-for-2. The Junior winner will be determined Monday night, when Baker and Naylor again will swing metal bats and get to interact with the big league All-Stars.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," said Baker, a catcher/right-hander from Oak Ridge High in Conroe, Texas. "All those guys in the Home Run Derby, I look up to and love watching them play. I'm looking forward to seeing guys like Matt Carpenter, because he's a Cardinal, Jose Altuve, because he's the local guy from Houston, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw. It's going to be cool to meet those guys."
A two-way player for Oak Ridge, Baker had solely pitched for USA Baseball since entering their development program four years ago. After four days of play at the Tournament of Stars in June, Texas Christian assistant Bill Mosiello called the USA Baseball staff to ask how Baker had looked on the mound and at the plate. He hadn't hit at the event, but his 6-foot-4, 240-pound build exudes strength, and USA Baseball officials decided to put him in the lineup on the final day.
Baker drilled a line-drive off the left-field fence in his first at-bat, went 2-for-4 and even drove the ball 300 feet to the opposite field when he got jammed and popped up. Suitably impressed, USA Baseball nominated him for inclusion in the Junior Derby.
Baker got off to a slow start at Target Field, homering just once to tie for seventh place after the 10-out first round. Following an unsuccessful first swing in the five-out second round, he went deep on four of his next five. His most impressive drive was his last, as he put a ball into the second deck in left field to conclude the tiebreaker round.
Junior Home Run Derby results
|Luken Baker, C/RHP, Oak Ridge High (Texas)||6*|
|John Naylor, 1B, St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary (Ont.)||6|
|Devin Davis, 1B, Valencia (Calif.) High||5|
|Daniel Reyes, OF, Mater Academy Charter School (Fla.)||5|
|Ty Buck, 3B, Red Wing (Minn.) High||3|
|Jason Heinrich, 1B, River Ridge High (Fla.)||3|
|Chris Betts, C, Wilson High (Calif.)||2|
|Raul Hernandez, 1B, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy (P.R.)||2|
|Wesley Rodriguez, 3B, Washington High (N.Y.)||1|
"I haven't hit on a lot of big stages before because I'm more of a pitcher," said Baker, who has a hard sinker that has been clocked up to 94 mph. "In the first round, I had a few jitters. Once I realized it was just taking hacks, I got loose. I found a groove and the BP guy kept putting the ball in the same spot every time."
One of two left-handed hitters in the Junior Derby, Naylor had to contend with a 23-foot wall in right field, while the righties only had to clear an eight-foot wall in left. The first baseman from St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School (Mississauga, Ont.) went deep just once in his first 10 swings before homering three straight times to finish the first round. That tied him for first place with Valencia (Calif.) High School first baseman Devin Davis and Mater Academy Charter School (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.) outfielder Daniel Reyes.
Naylor advanced by hitting two more homers in the second round, while Davis and Reyes managed just one each. Selected for the Junior Derby after consultation with Baseball Canada, Naylor is a 6-foot-1, 225-pounder with strength and bat speed. He hit the second-furthest ball at the Perfect Game National Showcase in June, a 394-foot triple.
"I wasn't really worried about the right-field wall," Naylor said. "My power plays and I have confidence in my game. I just started waiting on pitches instead of swinging at everything. I narrowed it down until I got my pitch."
Like Baker, Naylor is looking forward to being on the field with the All-Stars on Monday night.
"It's extremely exciting," Naylor said. "I can't wait to meet a lot of them. It's going to be a little nerve-wracking, but it's also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I'll get through it. I get to hit in front of 55,000 people tomorrow."
Jacob Gatewood made the most of that opportunity at Citi Field last year, when the Junior Home Run Derby was staged for the first time. A shortstop from Clovis (Calif.) High, Gatewood outperformed five of the eight big leaguers by swatting 13 homers during commercial breaks, including three blasts into the third deck. He established himself as the top power-hitting high school prospect for the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, which helped him earn a $1.83 million bonus as a second-round pick of the Brewers in June.