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Pascucci buffaloes way to Derby win

Hometown favorite outslugs Johnson in homer contest finals
July 10, 2012
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- With the hometown crowd of 17,244 standing and chanting his name, Valentino Pascucci put a exclamation point on his Triple-A Home Run Derby title.

As the winning drive sailed over the netting behind the left-field fence at Coca-Cola Field and onto Oak Street beyond, the Buffalo slugger raised his arm in triumph.

"I knew it was gone and the crowd was going nuts," Pascucci said. "It was a great moment for me."

Pascucci, second among active Minor Leaguers in career homers with 247, beat out Charlotte's Dan Johnson in the final round after both put on prodigious power displays in the semifinals.

Pascucci and Johnson smacked 13 out apiece, with the left-handed hitting Johnson peppering the party deck in right field and the right-handed Pascucci clearing a net in left field 60 feet higher than the warning track.

Seven of Pascucci's semifinal blasts went onto the street that leads to Interstate 190 in downtown Buffalo, as did the deciding shot in the finals.

"The total footage he put on those balls was amazing," Johnson said of Pascucci's moon shots.

Johnson, who won the 2010 Home Run Derby at Lehigh Valley while with Durham, was up first in the final round and hit five balls over the fence before recording his limit of 10 outs.

Pascucci, didn't waste any time sending the near-capacity crowd home happy, homering on his first three swings and tying Johnson with seven outs to go before mashing his deciding blow.

"There was a possibility of him getting 20," said Johnson, who leads Pascucci, 21-13, in regular-season home runs this year on the International League circuit.

"I got in a groove in the second round and it got louder and louder," Pascucci said. "I had a blast."

The 33-year-old slugger has thrilled a home crowd at the Triple-A All-Star Game before. In 2007, he homered and was the Pacific Coast League MVP in Albuquerque while playing for the Isotopes.

"It's always fun when you have the fans on our side," said Pascucci.

Maybe the crowd kept him going.

"I was really tired," admitted Johnson. "It takes a lot out of you."

Pascucci and Johnson struggled in the first round, hitting just three homers and having to go to a three-man playoff to make the semifinals.

"I was awful in the first round, but then I got in a groove," Johnson said. "I wish I could have gotten it back later."

Oklahoma City's Mike Hessman -- the active career Minor League home run leader with 356 -- and Tacoma's Luis Jimenez led the first round with nine and five homers respectively.

But neither was a match for Johnson and Pascucci in the semifinals.

Heesman, who leads Triple-A with 27 homers this season, came up empty on his first five semifinal swings and finished with just three homers. Jimenez hit six.

International League hitters have dominated the Home Run Derby in recent years. Stefan Gartrell of Gwinnett won last year in Salt Lake City, following Johnson the year before. Chad Huffman of Portland won in 2009 at his home park.

Joey Butler of Round Rock lost out in a playoff for the final spot in the semifinals after tying Johnson and Pascucci with three homers in the first round.

Matt LaPorta of Columbus hit just two homers to finish last in the first round and suffered the indignity of having a line drive caught near third base by the Famous Chicken while the mascot was entertaining the crowd.

The Celebrity Home Run Derby preceded the Triple-A event and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski put on a power display of his own. The native of suburban Williamsville wasn't content to just clear the temporary short fence, putting one ball out of the park to left field and short-hopping the center-field wall with another.

In brief

Back where it began: The Triple-A All-Star Game, which started in 1988 at Buffalo, is in its 25th year. The American League scored a run in the top of the ninth inning and beat the National League, 2-1, in the inaugural game. Gregg Jefferies had hit a seventh-inning homer for the Nationals to tie the game. With the disbanding of the American Association, the format was changed in 1998. The International League holds an 8-6 edge of the Pacific Coast League, winning seven of the past nine games and three straight.

No homer heritage: Pilot Field, the former name for Coca-Cola Field, prevailed in the first Triple-A Home Run Derby. Only two of the eight entrants hit more than a pair of homers in the regulation rounds and it took 10 extra swings for Tim Pyznarski to break a playoff tie with Bob Geren, the former Oakland Athletics manager. The fences were moved in by the Bisons in 1996 to mirror the outfield dimensions in Cleveland because the Indians were Buffalo's parent team at the time.

Shrinking stars: The original rosters for the Triple-A All-Star Game featured 30 players for each team, but callups and injuries resulted in considerably fewer players making it to Buffalo. The Pacific Coast League ended up with 27 for Wednesday's game, while the International League roster shrunk to 24. IL manager Mike Sarbaugh of Columbus has nine pitchers left on his team and PCL skipper Marty Brown of Las Vegas has 11. Brown led Buffalo to a IL Governors' Cup Championship in 2004.

Chock full of activities: Players arrived in Buffalo on Monday and will work out at Coca-Cola Field on Tuesday afternoon after a morning sightseeing trip to nearby Niagara Falls. An All-Star Gala for the players and Triple-A officials will take place Tuesday night and Hall of Famer Tom Seaver will speak at a sold-out All-Star Luncheon prior to the 7 p.m. game Wednesday.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to