Wladimir Balentien’s cousins began calling him “Coco” when he was 4-years old, because it was easier to say than his name, and the moniker stuck.
The way he’s swinging the bat, opposing pitchers are now probably busy trying to come up with easier methods of dealing with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger.
After a slump and a demotion, that was preceded by a scorching start, Balentien’s bat is catching fire again. He’s hit six home runs since June 27, three coming against the Chunichi Dragons on Wednesday alone.
“I felt like my bat was in the zone,” Balentien said of his three-homer night. “I wasn’t missing those pitches.”
“Every time you hit a home run, when you come up for your next at-bat, you’re feeling good. Then you get another homer and you’re like, man, my swing feels good right now. Then, you can go up there and try to get another one.”
The Willemstad, Curacao, native wants to keep driving balls out of the park, but is wary of trying to play beyond his limits.
Balentien got off to a similarly hot start last season, hitting .287 with 19 home runs and 40 RBIs at the All-Star break, but it was feast or famine rest of the way as he slumped to a .188 average, with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs after the break. Balentien says the problem was in his mental approach.
“Last year was my first year (in Japan), and I got a little happy and tried to do too much,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I can handle it, I can do more,’ than what I was doing. But it looks like that didn’t work out. So this year, I’m just going to stay focused, stay relaxed and take what every day gives me.”
Balentien leads NPB with 24 home runs, eight more than Chunichi Dragons power hitter Tony Blanco, and is hitting .276 with a NPB-leading 57 RBIs.
Fast and furious: Yomiuri Giants reliever Scott Mathieson unfurled a 160-kph pitch on Thursday against the Yokohama BayStars to become the fourth NPB player to clock 160 during a game, joining Marc Kroon (162), Yoshinori Sato (161) and Lim Chang Yong (160).
The achievement didn’t elicit much celebration from Mathieson, who says results, not speed, is all he worries about on the mound.
“As long as I get the guy out, as for the speed, I don’t really care,” Mathieson said at Tokyo Dome on Friday. “As long as they don’t hit it, that’s the main thing.”
A former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, Mathieson said his velocity was a bit slower than usual during his first few months in Japan. His velocity has begun to come back around in recent weeks, which could mean a few more fireballs for hitters to deal with in the future.
“Back home I was always in the mid 90s (150s kph) and by the end of the year I was always in the upper 90s,” Mathieson said. “It was probably the same thing here, just started off a bit low and have picked it up the more stretching we’ve done and the more throwing we’ve done.”
Mathieson didn’t know he had hit 160 until after the game, but didn’t have any special feeling one way or another about the mark, having done it on more than one occasion in the U.S.
“To me, as long as I don’t give up a hit on it, I’m fine,” Mathieson said. “It could be 140 for all I care, as long as I get the guy out.”
Downward spiral: Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Masaru Takeda (4-5, 2.12 ERA) can’t buy a win these days. Takeda hasn’t won since April 29 (a win that moved him to 4-0), and is on a nine-start winless streak. Over that span he’s 0-5 with a 2.70 ERA.
Takeda hasn’t pitched up to his normal standards, but hasn’t gotten much help either. The Fighters lefty allowed more than three earned runs only once in those nine outings and had just one start where he failed to pitch at least six innings.
Nice round number: Yokohama BayStars slugger Alex Ramirez became the 13th player to reach 2,000 hits combined between NPB and MLB on Thursday with a double in the fifth inning against his old team, the Yomiuri Giants.
Of the 13 players on that list, only Ramirez (1,915 NPB hits and 86 MLB hits), Kazuo Matsui (1,613, 615) and Hideki Matsui (1,390, 1,253) accumulated the majority of their hits in Japan.