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Milledge coming through for Swallows after being moved to leadoff spot

by Jason Coskrey

Lastings Milledge nearly put a ball into orbit against the Chunichi Dragons on a cool night at half-full (at best) Jingu Stadium last Thursday.

After rounding the bases, Milledge celebrated his handiwork with a salute to teammate Wladimir Balentien and a seamless transition into a rendition of the salsa celebration New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz popularized in the NFL last season.

It was an entertaining display under the lights — as if a 4-for-5 night with a couple of homers wasn’t entertainment enough — and to be sure the spotlight was on Milledge.

He didn’t shy away from it either, but then again, no one ever said he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin.

Where he was slightly uncomfortable, it seems, was in the third spot in the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ lineup.

Expectations were high when Milledge began his NPB career batting in front of slugger Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, and later Balentien. After all, this was a player who was a first-round pick in the MLB draft in 2003. Of course, the same could’ve been said upon his arrival to the New York Mets, who drafted him, and the Washington Nationals, who acquired him via trade after the 2007 season.

There were flashes of that player early, but they were mostly overshadowed by a slow start. Looking to shake things up, Swallows manager Junji Ogawa moved Milledge to the top of the order in late May.

The change has worked out so far for Milledge, who is hitting .285 (fourth-best in the Central League) with 10 home runs, 35 RBIs and a .795 on-base plus slugging percentage for the season.

“He’s been great for us,” Balentien said. “He’s filled a hole for us in left field, and he’s also hitting well.”

Milledge had a .238 average, five home runs and 16 RBIs on May 27, his last game in the 3-hole, but is batting .358 with five homers and 19 RBIs since the change.

“I’m just not trying to do too much,” Milledge said. “When I was the No. 3 hitter, I felt like I was trying to do too much. Hitting leadoff, I can kind of let my natural ability take over.

“I don’t have to worry about that label of No. 3 hitter, trying to drive in runs,” Milledge said. “Now it’s about being that spark. It’s about getting on base, stealing bases and just being that spark. I just take what they give me. If they give me good pitches, I hit, or if they wanna walk me, that’s fine too.”

Milledge seems to have also tweaked his mechanics slightly, which has coincided with his rise.

“He’s been using a more open stance,” Ogawa told reporters Wednesday, “and the ball was really flying off his bat.”

Milledge says he’s just in a good place right now.

“I’m just not missing pitches,” he said. “That’s just baseball. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. Just take every day as it comes.”

The Bradenton, Florida, native is still adjusting to Japan, but has said he hasn’t been particularly bothered by the slight differences between MLB and NPB.

Having Balentien on the team has probably helped ease Milledge’s transition.

Some players in Japan for the first time have a difficult time initially if they’re the only foreigner in the dugout. There’s a cultural divide, a language barrier, and no one from a similar background to bounce ideas off or just shoot the breeze with.

That can lead to frustration, especially if things aren’t going well, making it harder to adjust to Japanese baseball.

“He means a lot,” Milledge said of Balentien. “We have a good relationship because when we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we let each other know. We pick each other up.”

It was perhaps fitting then, that Milledge had his best game of the season last Thursday, a day after Balentien hit three home runs and drove in eight runs against the Dragons.

The pair combined to drive in 14 runs in the two-game series (Chunichi could only manage nine), the fruits of a partnership the Swallows hope lasts late into the fall.

“It’s definitely good to have a guy to push you,” Milledge said. “I can’t hit as many home runs as he can, but we’re definitely going to work together and try to bring a championship to Tokyo.”