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Rock the HR Derby? Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez share a secret weapon

NEW YORK -- When Aaron Judge steps to the plate for the Home Run Derby on Monday night, he'll know the man throwing the ball to him will put it right where he wants it.

“He finds my sweet spot,” Judge said of 51-year-old Cuban emigre Danilo Valiente, a New York Yankees batting practice pitcher.

Judge and Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez will both use Valiente as their designated thrower at the All-Star event in Miami. Judge is the 6-foot-7, 282-pound favorite to win both American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards this season, while Sanchez -- signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old for $3 million -- set home run records as a rookie in 2016. Valiente's journey to the mound at Marlins Park is less heralded, but it is just as interesting.

In 2006, a month after they moved to Tampa from Cuba, his wife, Isabel, died of pancreatic cancer. Grieving, Valiente tried to find solace in baseball. In Cuba, he had become a coach after falling just one notch below the highest level of the country's pro leagues. He had learned bits and pieces about the Yankees, his favorite team.

He sought out Mark Newman, then vice president of player development, at a park near the Yankees' complex, and asked for a job. The unorthodox approach caught Newman's attention.

From there, Valiente has worked his way through the Yankees' system, becoming a favorite BP pitcher to the stars. In 2014, he was brought on to the major league club. Other than a story in The New York Times that year, he has done his job in relative anonymity.

Until Monday night, that is, when Valiente will throw 25 percent of the pitches in the first round of the Home Run Derby.

“It feels like a dream,” Valiente said through a translator. “I never thought I was going to be part of it. Now that I’m going to be part of it, it is very special.”

Both Judge and Sanchez were thrilled to ask Valiente.

“He was very excited,” Sanchez said. “In his face, I could tell he was very happy. I’m excited for him.”

They had their selfish reasons, too, of course. Players can ask anyone to throw to them for the competition. It's often someone like Valiente, but in years past, players have used a variety of pitchers. When Robinson Cano won it in 2011, he chose his father, Jose, to throw to him, because that made him feel most comfortable.

Sanchez has told Valiente exactly where he wants his 55-60 mph, four-seam fastballs -- middle and a little in -- while Judge said Valiente has a way of just finding the exact spot to locate his pitches.

“He always hits my barrel in BP,” Judge said.

Valiente said Judge likes his pitches slightly higher than the waist.

Judge will be the main event of the first round, along with hometown hero Giancarlo Stanton and Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger. Judge, 25, seems to handle everything with ease. He expects his day to be busy, but he doesn't seem like he's sweating anything.

"I'm just going to go out there and have some fun," Judge said.

Judge, the No. 2 seed, will face Marlins first baseman Justin Bour in the first round. If Judge wins, he could meet No. 3 seed Bellinger, which is the matchup basically anyone not related to Bour or to Bellinger's opening opponent, Charlie Blackmon, wants to see.

On the other side of the bracket, Sanchez, the No. 8 seed, will face Stanton, the No. 1 seed.

Judge grew up watching the Home Run Derby and is particularly fond of the 2008 edition, the summer before his junior year in high school, when Josh Hamilton put on a show (but didn't win) in the final year at the old Yankee Stadium.

All eyes will be on Judge at Marlins Park. He'll have a security blanket in Valiente, who will have the added thrill of taking the field in Miami, where he has friends from his home country. That won't stop some of the nerves.

“It is going to be my first time doing an event like that,” Valiente said. “I have to relax, try to do what I do here every day.”