The Tokyo Yakult Swallows survived the interleague season.
They took their fair share of bumps and bruises and played some of their worst baseball over the course of 24 games against the Pacific League, but in the end managed to come out on the other side still in a favorable position (third) in the Central League standings.
Now back in intraleague competition, the Swallows are ready to move on, forget about the troubles of the past few weeks, and focus on making a run at the CL pennant.
“That’s baseball, it happens,” outfielder Lastings Milledge said of the team’s interleague woes. “The team that’s the most consistent is going to win the championship.”
The Birds brought up the rear in the interleague standings at 9-15, a mark defined by the 10-game losing streak they endured from May 17-30. The Swallows were outscored 108-79 during interleague play, collectively hit .242 and finished with a 4.25 team ERA, by far the NPB’s worst.
“It’s good to be back on a normal schedule,” said closer Tony Barnette. “The interleague schedule is kind of tough. You get out of grooves, or you get in a bad groove, like we did with those 10 games. During that stretch everybody just kept saying ‘keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.’
“Everybody on this team, we’ve all played baseball for a long time, and everyone’s had losing streaks. It wasn’t new to most of us.”
The skid failed to shake the Swallows’ confidence, even as they settled at the bottom of the interleague standings, because they know fortune can just as easily swing the other way later in the year.
“Things have a way of evening themselves out,” Milledge said.
Now that they’re back to facing CL teams, the Swallows are ready to turn things around.
They got a big boost from Wladimir Balentien in their series against the Giants over the weekend, with the slugger hitting a pair of home runs in their win on Friday and going deep again in a loss on Saturday.
If Balentien, who hit 31 home runs last season, begins to heat up, it could mean trouble for CL pitchers going forward.
“I would love to think that way,” Balentien said. “It’s just baseball, you know? You never know when you get hot, you never know when you get cold. I hope this is a good sign for me.”
Balentien began the season on an incredible hot streak, taking home player of the month honors for March/April, after hitting .308 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 25 games. He lapsed into a slump in May hitting .191 with six homers and nine RBIs in 20 games.
The team is hoping his three home runs against the Giants is a sign his bat may be starting to come around again. In 11 games this month (he spent some time on the farm team) Balentien’s average is only slightly better than in May (.205), but he also has six home runs and 15 RBIs.
“It’s getting better,” Balentien said of his hitting. “It’s getting way better. I almost feel like I felt at the beginning of the season this year. I feel like it’s getting there.
“I hope it gets better, because that’s the only way I can help this team,” Balentien said. “For us to get back in the race, I need to get back into that form. I hope I get there and stay there for the rest of the season.”
After a draw against the Giants on Sunday, the Swallows are 29-29-4, four games behind the Kyojin and five adrift of the first-place Chunichi Dragons.
The Swallows’ road may not be any easier from here on out, but they can take solace in the fact it’ll be lined with challengers they’ve faced before. The team wasn’t shaken by their failings against the PL, and if they play their cards right, there may be a chance to right that wrong in October.
“We just gotta keep playing,” Barnette said. “Interleague was tough, but it’s good to be back in the Central League, normal schedule, facing the guys we’re used to facing. I think we’re going to turn things around.”