Former Wake Forest standout Allan Dykstra wins Triple-A Home Run Derby

acarter@newsobserver.comJuly 14, 2014 

Correction: A photo caption with this story incorrectly identified one of the participants in the Triple-A Home Run Derby. The photo was of Francisco Pena of the Omaha Storm Chasers, not Jesus Aguilar of the Columbus Clippers.

DURHAM - When players hit a home run the bull’s eyes turn red and its tail wags and smoke billows from it. For the most part, though, it was safe during the Triple-A Home Run Derby on Monday night, sitting unscathed atop the left-field fence at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Players found it difficult to hit the famed wooden bull in “Bull Durham,” the 1988 film romanticizing minor league baseball, and made the Durham Bulls a part of pop culture. And they found it difficult again Monday night, when the derby ended with Allan Dykstra, a former standout at Wake Forest, victorious.

Had the bull been hit twice, someone in the stands would have won a $100 gift certificate to the Angus Barn. Each time after that would have resulted in another gift certificate to one of the area’s historic steakhouses. If the competitors managed to hit the bull 15 times, someone in attendance would have won $15,000.

The lottery might have presented better odds Monday night, though, the way the derby went. Dykstra ended the festivities in the final round when he hit a home run to right field.

It came off the second pitch he saw from Clay Council, who was Josh Hamilton’s batting practice pitcher at Athens Drive High, and who pitched to Hamilton when he hit 35 home runs in the 2008 Major League Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

Council pitched only the final round of the competition. During a pre-round interview broadcast on the stadium public address system, he spoke of the key to pitching in a home run derby: deliver pitches right down the middle, at an easy speed of about 50 mph.

Francisco Pena, though, couldn’t take advantage. Pena, 24, has hit 18 home runs with the Kansas City Royals’ affiliate in Omaha, Neb., but failed to hit a home run in the final round. That allowed Dykstra to win the competition with a single swing moments after he came to bat.

After he’d won, Dykstra, who plays for the New York Mets’ affiliate in Las Vegas, held high the derby’s championship belt. The San Diego Padres selected him out of Wake Forest in the first round of the Major League draft in 2008, and this was a homecoming of sorts.

“It’s just awesome being back (in the state) where I pretty much made a name for myself at Wake Forest,” he said.

A left-handed hitter, Dykstra didn’t have much of a chance to take a shot at the bull.

It looms over the tall, blue left-field fence, a wooden structure that presents an inviting target, and one with a familiar phrase: “Hit bull, win steak.” And, below that, “Hit grass, win salad.”

Matt Hague, another member of the 2008 draft class, was the only one credited with hitting the bull Monday night – though it appeared his home run sailed well over the bull. It counted, though, and those in attendance won a free steak taco.

Dykstra, who hit eight home runs during the three rounds of the competition, received some advice to try to go opposite field. He decided to play to his strength, though, and hit most of his home runs down the right-field line.

He hit all of them after failing to hit any with his first six swings, leaving the crowd – which included some fans sitting in the infield, nestled under a protective netting – wanting more.

“You come out here and there’s a lot of pressure on you,” Dykstra said. “It’s a little bit different with the people sitting on the infield or wherever they were, and the second (pitch) I actually fouled off my shin so I went in and got a shin guard.”

Maybe that did the trick. Aside from Mike Jacobs, who has hit 100 home runs in 569 major league games, none of the other derby’s five competitors had ever hit a major league home run.

Jacobs didn’t hit a single home run Monday night, and only a few players did much better. And so the bull sat there, mostly quiet and safe – an able guard of those Angus Barn gift certificates.

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