Pete Alonso or Fernando Tatis Jr.?
The race for National League Rookie of the Year should be a doozy, likely coming down to either the 24-year-old East Coast slugger or the 20-year-old West Coast phenom.
With every home run Alonso hits, New York Mets fans will clamor for their guy to win it. With every slick defensive play or jaw-dropping adventure on the base paths by Tatis, long-suffering San Diego Padres fans will demand that their shortstop get the award.
Alonso is the leading contender, based on hitting 30 home runs before the All-Star break, beating fellow rookie Vlad Guerrero Jr. in the Home Run Derby to win $1 million and then playing in his first All-Star Game. The 30 homers are already a single-season Mets rookie record and the record for an NL rookie before the All-Star break, as were his 68 RBIs. He’s within reach of breaking Aaron Judge’s rookie record of 52 homers in 2017, when the Yankees slugger won the AL ROY.
The first baseman is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Mets. He even has a nickname, “Polar Bear,” which is fitting because he’s 6-foot-3, 245 pounds.
He was given the nickname by Todd Frazier.
“In spring training, he said, ‘You look like a big, damn polar bear.’ And then it just kind of stuck,” Alonso told reporters during All-Star festivities. “So if any of you guys know Todd Frazier, he’s a loud mouth from Jersey. He tells it how it is. But I love that guy. He’s a great teammate. But he’s quite the character. He’s a clown. But definitely got it from him.”
Noah Syndergaard starting calling the rookie “Pete the Polar Bear” early in the season.
Alonso immediately gained notice for more than just his nickname. He slashed .292/.382/.642 with nine home runs, eight doubles, one triple and 26 RBIs in his first 29 games to win the NL Rookie of the Month award for March and April.
That set off Padres rookie right-hander Chris Paddack, who felt he could have won the award after posting a 1.91 ERA in his first six starts in the big leagues, with an opponents’ batting line of .126/.197/.207.
Paddack, who missed all of 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, burst into the big leagues with a great deal of confidence. After Alonso won the monthly award, Paddack told The Athletic: “He’s a great player, no doubt. Does he deserve (the Rookie of the Month honor)? Absolutely. But I’m coming for him.”
Paddack got that chance on May 6 when he started at Petco Park against Alonso and the Mets. After striking out Alonso on a 98 mph fastball in the first inning, Paddack pumped his fist and hollered. TV cameras showed Paddack’s brother, Michael, standing up in the stands behind the Padres’ dugout and hollering, “Sit down, boy!” at Alonso.
Paddack fanned a career-high 11 that night, including Alonso twice, and outdueled reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom in a 4-0 victory.
Alonso seemed surprised that Paddack had concocted a rivalry between the two rookies, and said the pitcher’s comments didn’t sit well with him.
“If he was upset about it, I’m assuming he could have been a little jealous,” Alonso said. “He had a hell of a first month. I’m happy to win it. If he was mad about that, there’s five other months. There’s five months left in the season.”
DeGrom didn’t sound all that impressed by Paddack. “His stuff was OK. He just located it well tonight,” the Mets ace said that night.
Alonso got his revenge against the Padres the next night when he hit a 449-foot, two-run home run in the ninth inning to lift the Mets to a 7-6 victory that snapped a four-game losing streak. Alonso finished with three hits and four RBIs. He was more focused on his team rather than any rivalry with Paddack.
“Today was a really good character test for us. This was a really good team win,” Alonso said.
The homer off Adam Warren _ with Paddack watching from the Padres’ dugout _ was so big that Alonso said he “blacked out for a little bit. I just remember touching home. I don’t even remember touching the bases.”
Alonso flipped his bat after his mammoth drive, but said it was inadvertent because pine tar made it stick to his hands. The bat went in the direction of umpire Bill Miller, who spoke with Alonso after scored. Alonso said he apologized.
As he headed out to the field for the bottom of the ninth, Alonso crossed paths with San Diego’s Manny Machado. “Manny said, ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ He gave me a wink and a smile after he said it,” Alonso said.
While Alonso has continued to swat dingers, Paddack has cooled off a bit. He was even sent down to the minors for 10 days to rest his arm. Represented by agent Scott Boras, Paddack will be on an innings limit and likely will be shut down at some point later in the season. As of Monday, he was 5-4 with a 2.48 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings.
But then there’s Tatis, who can be absolutely electric, particularly when on base. Every time he steps into the batter’s box, there’s the chance he’ll start a rally.
The son of the former big league infielder can make your jaw drop with his overall game. He can beat out an infield single or hit a 400-foot home run. He’s thrown out a runner while on one knee. His speed is lethal. He’s scored on a popup to second base and on a fly ball to medium right field. He also scored from second on an infield single that caromed off Giants pitcher Trevor Gott’s glove. Running on contact with two outs, Tatis reached third base by the time Gott collected the ball and threw to first, and then came dashing home with a headfirst slide.
Tatis also became the youngest player to have a multihomer game at Dodger Stadium. That came a day after he was hit by a pitch on his left elbow. Oh, and that’s the same stadium where his father became the only player to hit two grand slams in the same inning, doing it for the St. Louis Cardinals on April 23, 1999. That was less than three months after Fernando Jr. was born.
“It’s amazing, especially here, in this park, where my dad hit the two grand slams,” Tatis said that day. “That’s a lot of history for our family.”
In the same game, Tatis made a slick diving stop of Austin Barnes’ grounder and then threw him out from his left knee.
Tatis is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3 _ four inches taller than his father _ and a muscular 185 pounds.
“You don’t take his talent for granted,” Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer said that day. “It’s incredible what he does. You forget his age in all that. It’s amazing.”
On Sunday against Atlanta, Tatis was caught in a rundown but managed to get back to first base with an unbelievable twisting slide that had some people saying he went “full Matrix.”
“He’s the first guy I’ve ever seen get a standing ovation for getting picked off,” manager Andy Green said.
Tatis said the incredible play came about because of his upbringing in the Dominican Republic.
“We grew up over there in DR playing games like that, so that’s where it comes from,” Tatis said.
It’s already been a tough summer in San Diego, where fans felt that Tatis, easily one of the most exciting players in the game, should have been invited to the All-Star Game. Fans were also mad that Hunter Renfroe and Franmil Reyes were snubbed for the Home Run Derby despite being among MLB’s leaders.
Tatis’ case for Rookie of the Year might be hurt because he missed 34 games after straining his left hamstring on April 28. Then again, that showed how valuable he is to the Padres. They went 15-19 without him, cooling after an impressive start.
After Alonso and Tatis, there’s a dropoff to the other candidates, Mike Soroka and Austin Riley of the Atlanta Braves.
Then again, after Soroka beat the Padres on Sunday to improve to 10-1 with a 2.24 ERA, his teammates were lobbying for him to win the NL Cy Young Award.
“Who cares about the Rookie of the Year?” said Freddie Freeman, whose three-run home run helped carry Soroka to a 4-1 victory. “I think he’s running it for Cy Young.”
Catcher Brian McCann agreed, saying that Soroka is “well beyond his years. His stuff is off the charts. He’s going to be really good for a really, really long time.”