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Wladimir Balentien aiming to become Japan’s home run king

The Yakult Swallows are tracking the progress of Wladimir Balentien
The Yakult Swallows are tracking the progress of Coco
TOKYO (TR) – Succession to Japan’s home run crown is just a few swings away.

In the bottom of the ninth on Wednesday at Meiji Jingu Stadium, former major leaguer Wladimir Balentien, the right-handed slugger for the Central League’s Yakult Swallows, uncoiled his burly frame to pound a hanging curve ball into the seats in left field.

The solo shot was his 51st round-tripper of the year, inching him closer to 55, the single-season record first set by Sadaharu Oh five decades ago and later equaled by Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.

With 31 games left on the schedule, the native of Curaçao knows that getting to 55 could become challenging as Nippon Professional Baseball is not known for playing fair when foreigners approach the record considered to be unrivaled.

“As (the record) nears, pitchers will be reluctant to throw strikes,” said Balentien in a statement issued on the Swallows’ Web site after the game, an 11-7 loss to the Chunichi Dragons. “I sense that, but I’m concentrating on hitting strikes.”

Oh, the former first baseman and manager who is one of the most highly regarded sports figures in Japan, set the record in 1964 when he was with the Yomiuri Giants. Since then there has been a blatant effort on a number of occasions — notably in games involving Oh himself — to ensure that it remains intact.

The Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Bass entered the last game of the 1985 season with 54 home runs. He was walked four times by the Yomiuri Giants, who were managed by Oh.

In 2001, Tuffy Rhodes, while playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, came into the final five games of the year with 55 home runs. The outfielder faced challenges similar to Bass in games against the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, a team also skippered by Oh.

“They didn’t throw me any strikes,” said Rhodes by email, referring to the games against Fukuoka. “I had to swing at two pitches (out of the strike zone) if I wanted to hit.”

The following year, Alex Cabrera, then of the Seibu Lions, as well complained about a lack of pitches over the plate after his pursuit of the record also stalled at 55.

Speculation has started in Japan’s tabloid media about whether Balentien will suffer a similar fate. The online Business Journal went as far as to suggest that the negative publicity from a repeat of unsportsmanlike behavior would endanger Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. (The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to announce the winning city on September 7.)

As to the fans, a survey of 30 spectators entering Meiji Jingu Stadium (Yakult’s home field) on Tuesday night found that 27 supported Balentien’s bid to surpass Oh.

However, the slugger is hitting long balls at such a prodigious clip the matter is shaping up to be a moot point. The home run on Wednesday was his 17th in August, a new record for a single month.

Balentien, whose three-year MLB career included stints with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds, was out of the Yakult lineup for the first 12 games this year due to a leg injury he suffered while playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. His output over the next 100 games has put him on pace to hit 66 home runs — a figure updated regularly by the “Coco Meter,” which invokes the outfielder’s nickname, on the team’s Web site.

But no matter how many balls Coco sends into the seats, his performance may come under a degree of scrutiny.

In June, commissioner Ryozo Kato admitted that a more lively ball was covertly put into play at the start of the year in an effort to induce more home runs, which had dropped off after a “uniform” ball was introduced after the 2010 season to better match that used in international play.

It worked. With a month remaining in the season, teams have thus far collectively slugged more than 1,050 home runs, a figure that already exceeds the total from last year (881) and the year before (939).

But those concerned that the ball is unfairly “juiced” will need to consider that this year’s pace still lags that of the season before the change, when batters hit a total of 1,605 home runs.

Balentien’s spectacular year has not come from nowhere. His two previous seasons with the Swallows coincided with the “dead ball” era. Yet the outfielder still managed to slug 31 home runs during both of those campaigns.

For Yakult, the exploits of Balentien, who also leads the Central League with a .339 batting average, are the highlights of what has mostly been a dismal season. The team is buried in last place, seven games back in the hunt for the league’s final playoff spot.

“I know the team is counting on me,” he said. “Even though we have been losing I’ve been fighting, and will continue until the end.”

With the chase winding down, Rhodes said that he does not have any advice to offer Balentien, saying the slugger is “doing just fine.”

Balentien believes in approaching it one at-bat at a time. “I just want to keep hitting well for a longer period,” he said.