Wladimir Balentien’s season began with a lot of lonely days in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, a city of a little more than 126,000 (according to a 2012 population estimate) just across the Arakawa River, while his Tokyo Yakult Swallows teammates were busy taking on three of their Central League rivals.
Back then, “Coco” was still at the team’s minor-league facility working his way back from the left groin injury he suffered during the World Baseball Classic. He was happy to be back under the bright lights on Friday and eager to help the Birds take on the defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants.
“It feels good to be back, Balentien said prior to the game. “I wanted to be here from day one.”
Balentien’s return could be a big boost to the Swallows’ offense. The 28-year-old Curacao native is coming off back-to-back 30-homer seasons and hit .272 with 31 home runs and 81 RBIs in 106 games last season.
Balentien said he missed being around the team during his time away, and was itching to get back out on the field after batting practice, joking that he wanted to hit 42 home runs this year.
“Go up there, go to Toda, and then go through the same routine everyday, your rehab things, you get a little tired of doing the same thing everyday,” Balentien said. That’s part of the rehab, but to be here with the team and do different stuff, talking with the guys, be playing in a real game, it feels great to be in that situation.”
Balentien didn’t enjoy the monotony of his rehab, or the early morning wakeup calls and long train rides to Toda, but the situation was not without its benefits. The Swallows slugger wasn’t able to run, but was free to get some extra work in the batting cages.
“During the season, we don’t have a lot of time,” Balentien said. “On the road, we only hit about 4 or 5 minutes, and home you hit like 8 minutes. So a lot of times when you want to get some extra swings, you have to go to the indoor facility to get it done. It’s not the same as hitting on the field. Down there (in Toda) I’d be hitting on the field for 20, 30 minutes. It’s good because you can see where the ball goes and all that stuff.”
Balentien originally injured his groin during the Netherlands’ game against Cuba during the second-round of the WBC. Balentien pulled up lame while attempting to steal second during the third inning of the Dutch’s 7-6 win. He played right field during the following half-inning, and was later removed from the game.
Balentien said he enjoyed the WBC experience and hopes to participate in the next edition of the tournament. For now, he’s simply focused on having a good season for the Swallows.
“I always have the same goal every year,” Balentien began, “to have a better year than I had the year before. That’s my main goal this year. Try to prove to myself, and prove to my teammates and prove to the coaches that I’m getting better every year.”
Getting Balentien back comes at a great time for the Swallows, who could use some good news having lost their best pitcher, Shohei Tateyama, and young fireballer Yoshinori Sato for the season because of injuries.
“We lose one of the best pitchers, but we have a couple of guys who can throw the ball over the plate,” Balentien said. “I think if these guys do a great job, our offense will be able to survive and get a lot of wins that we need to get in tough games when you really need Tateyama. But I think we’ll be alright.”
Despite the extra work Balentien was able to get in with his bat, the slugger knows he’ll need to get adjusted to seeing live pitching again.
“A little,” Balentien said, “but it’s alright. I can handle it.”