As Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien went through his pregame stretching, he surveyed the field where the newly minted Central League champion Yomiuri Giants were wrapping up batting practice and barely suppressed a laugh while noting, “everything has gone right for them this year.”
He has a point. The Giants landed big-ticket free agents Toshiya Sugiuchi, D.J. Houlton and Shuichi Murata during the offseason, won the CL’s first interleague title, and added the CL pennant on Friday. The Kyojin are 43-games over .500 and won’t play another meaningful contest until Oct. 17, when they’ll begin the Central League Climax Series Final Stage with an automatic 1-0 advantage.
Even Yomiuri Old Boy Davey Johnson is getting in on the action, having managed the Washington Nationals into the MLB playoffs this season.
So yeah, it’s been a Yomiuri kind of year. Except for the fact a certain Swallows slugger can still manage to spoil some the party.
Giants captain Shinnosuke Abe is putting the finishing touches on an amazing season and leads Japan with a .341 average and 98 RBIs. What he doesn’t have the lead in is home runs.
The Giants catcher is second in Japan with 26 homers. Balentien leads the way with 29, making him the only obstacle between Abe and the Triple Crown.
“I always heard he was a great hitter, and I had a chance to see him the last two years,” Balentien said. “This year he’s been amazing. There’s nothing I can say. I’m happy for him, for the season he’s having.”
The last player to win the Triple Crown was Fukuoka Daiei Hawks outfielder Nobuhiko Matsunaka (.358, 44 home runs, 120 RBIs) in 2004. The last time a catcher did it was way back in 1965, when Nankai Hawks great Katsuya Nomura hit .320, with 42 home runs and 110 RBIs.
If Balentien remains out front, he’ll win the CL home run title for the second straight year.
Abe has nine games left to catch him, three of them at Tokyo Dome, where he’s hit 12 in 57 games. Balentien has 12 games left and will play eight at Jingu Stadium, where he’s knocked 14 out of the park in 37 games.
“It’s getting tight,” Balentien said. “Abe’s having a great season. I would be happy if either of us gets it.”
Despite the good vibrations, ‘Coco’ will make Abe work for it.
Balentien is playing at a much higher level than he was at this time last season, when his numbers took a big dip after the All-Star break.
“I made some adjustments, because as everybody knows, the pitchers make adjustments and you need to keep pace and be better than them,” he said. “What I’ve just tried to do is concentrate, stay in my swing, and not try to hit home runs, because home runs come by themselves. I think that was the basic point, just try to see the ball and hit it in the sweet spot and let the rest happen.
“I will try to stay consistent, because that’s the basic thing,” he said. “Just don’t try to do to much, do what I gotta do, do the little things. Those are the things that help me make my game a little better, and if my game gets better, that will make my team a little better.”
Winning the home run title would be nice, but Balentien is honing his game in order to snatch an even bigger prize (the Climax Series title) away from Abe and the Giants, especially given that Yomiuri clinched the league pennant with the Swallows sitting in the visitors’ dugout.
“We’re hungry every day,” Balentien said. “They celebrated (Friday night). It was fun for them. It hurt a little for us, because we went to spring training with the mentality to celebrate same way they did. It wasn’t able to happen this year, but we still have a good chance to face them again in the final stage if we win the first stage, and I hope we can come through. And it’ll be our turn to celebrate.”