SENDAI – Wladimir Balentien was smiling for what seemed like the entire three-game All-Star Series. And who could blame him?
The numbers the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ newest star put up in the first half of the season would put a smile on anyone’s face.
He’s hit the ground running in his first season in Japan, batting .266 and leading the Central League with 19 home runs and second with 40 RBIs.
“I never imagined it was going to be like this,” Balentien said. “But I always believe in myself. I always think that wherever I’m going to be, I’m going to try to be the best and try to do the best I can.”
His efforts helped land him a spot on the CL All-Star team.
“I always set goals and the All-Star game was one of my goals,” Balentien said. “I knew it was going to be a tough challenge, but I just went out there, believed in myself, and here I am. To play in the All-Star game, to represent my country (Curacao) and my team, I’m glad to do that.”
Balentien hit .333 in the All-Star Series, including a solo homer in the opening game. Still, he said one of his favorite parts of being on the team was rubbing shoulders with the top players from the other clubs.
“It’s been a great experience so far, to play with all these great players,” Balentien said. “You know, being on the All-Star team is the only way you get to share a locker room with all those great superstars.”
The Yakult outfielder even helped make a little history. The CL set a new All-Star record by hitting four homers during the fifth inning of the opening game on Friday, the most in a single All-Star frame. The CL also scored eight runs during the frame, another record.
Balentien’s homer that night was the third among the four, coming after a game-tying two-run drive by Chunichi Dragons second baseman Masahiro Araki and a three-run shot by Yakult’s Kazuhiro Hatakeyama. Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hisayoshi Chono followed Balentien with the fourth homer of the inning.
“I was watching the game, and when he (Araki) hit a home run, I was like, ‘wow, we’re back in the game,’ ” Balentien said. “Then we had a couple of hits in a row, and Hatekeyama went deep and I went, ‘wow, this is getting crazy.’
“I never go up there and think I’m going to hit a home run. But I had a good pitch to hit and I put a good swing on it and it went out. It was like something amazing. You rarely even see that, a lot of hits and home runs in a row like that. It’s a nice feeling for me and also a nice feeling to see my teammates do it too.”
With the midseason festival in the rearview mirror, Balentien is ready to get back the work. The Swallows will resume the regular season on Tuesday with an eight-game lead at the top of the standings.
Yakult is currently the only CL team above .500. Balentien says he’s committed to maintaining the current status quo the rest of the way.
“My goals are to just try to stay healthy and try to swing the bat the way I did in the first half,” he said. “To try to help the Swallows and keep us in first place is the main goal right now. I’m going to try to do everything I can to keep us where we are right now.”
Darvish’s kind gesture
Yu Darvish intimidates when he’s on the mound, his stuff mean and nasty to a point where it’s often unhittable.
The best pitcher in Japan, however, showed a gentler side on Sunday, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace displaying a kind gesture for the people who embraced him during his youth.
Pacific League manger Koji Akiyama was planning to start Darvish, widely seen as Japan’s next biggest export to the majors, for Game 3 of the All-Star series at Kleenex Stadium, home to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Rakuten’s star right-hander Masahiro Tanaka was due to take the mound after Darvish.
Darvish, though, had other ideas.
Knowing the quake-ravaged region well — he attended Tohoku High School, where he made a name for himself as one of the best pitching prospects in the country — Darvish asked Akiyama to let Tanaka start instead.