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Howard denied back-to-back titles

Howard denied back-to-back titles

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The great reign of Ramon Henderson has come to an end.

More specifically, Ryan Howard didn't make it out of the first round of Monday night's State Farm Home Run Derby.

With Henderson, the Phillies' bullpen coach, on the mound, Howard was trying to repeat as the Derby champ at AT&T Park. But his three homers in the first round fell short of qualification to advance.

Howard's early ouster was a surprise, given his flair for the dramatic at PNC Park in Pittsburgh last July and Henderson's two-year run as the game's premier deliverer of dingers. Henderson was the one who pitched to Derby winner Bobby Abreu in 2005 and Howard in '06.

"I was very happy I was able to come over here to San Francisco for the third straight year to compete in the Home Run Derby," Henderson said. "It didn't work out. I knew that sooner or later, it was going to end."

It ended, apparently, because of what became a game of shadows.

The Derby was an early evening affair this year, with the West Coast start time of 5 p.m. PT. A shadow cast between the pitcher's mound and home plate wrecked havoc on Howard's approach.

"It kind of plays with your depth perception a little bit," Howard said. "You could see it, but it was kind of like you weren't sure how fast it was coming in."

Howard was the final participant of the first round, and he needed five homers to advance. But he didn't hit any until seven outs into his at-bat. That one barely cleared the wall in dead center field. With eight outs, he deposited another one over the right-center-field wall. And he hit one more out to deep right-center -- a 477-foot blast that was the longest homer of the first round -- before fading out.

It was, therefore, an anticlimactic outing for Howard, who was invited to participate in the Derby despite the fact that he's not on the National League's All-Star roster.

Nonetheless, he had a good time.

"That's the main focus, to come out and have fun," he said. "Things didn't go the way we wanted them to go, but we still had fun."

All-Star Game Coverage

Shadows aside, AT&T Park's dimensions aren't exactly favorable to a left-hander like Howard. The right-field foul pole sits only 309 feet down the first-base line, but the right-field wall is 24 feet high. The deep dimensions in right-center field have earned that area the nickname "death valley."

Those dimensions didn't do much to help Howard's cause. He preferred the cushy comforts of the Pirates' home park.

"It's a little bit tougher here," he said. "This is a big park. This is a man's field right here. You can't miss it and hit it out."

Howard and Abreu didn't miss much of what Henderson served up in '05 and '06. His ability to deliver belt-high fastballs and get lit up with sparkling precision became his claim to fame.

So what are the secrets to becoming a successful (or should that read unsuccessful?) Derby pitcher?

"No. 1, you have to be able to throw strikes," Henderson said. "No. 2, you have to maintain the same velocity. That way, you don't throw the hitter off balance. No. 3, you have to know the hitters' strength and where he likes the ball. That's very important."

Henderson hopes to put those lessons to better use next year, should he and Howard team up again in Yankee Stadium.

And if not, well, he can't complain about the experiences the last three years have brought. Henderson soaked in the All-Star atmosphere with his family, which includes his three young sons.

"I've been in professional baseball for 26 years, and these last three years have been the highlight of my career," Henderson said. "It's been great. I was able to bring my boys all three times. Even this time, we didn't win, but I enjoyed it."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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