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Swallows’ Balentien reflects on All-Star fun, superb start to season

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Wladimir Balentien was joking around with Tony Blanco during an interview when he took off his hat to reveal he’d had a large star cut into his hair in celebration of his third All-Star Series appearance in as many seasons.

“He’s a star,” Blanco said, “so he has a star.”

Balentien is indeed a star, one of the biggest in NPB these days, and he was in demand prior to the start of the second game of the 2013 All-Star Series on Saturday. The Yakult Swallows slugger was in a jovial mood at his home park, Jingu Stadium, and all too happy to oblige requests for his time. After all, it’s not very often during the grind of long baseball season that one gets to really kick back and just enjoy the moment.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Balentien said of the All-Star Series. “When the season starts, you can’t relax, you can’t smile, you can’t have fun. You have to get straight to business, 100 percent, 200 percent concentration. I think to have this little break to enjoy and be with all the guys from the other teams, to laugh and joke around, is a good way to take a little stress away.”

The All-Star Series wraps up on Monday night in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, and it’s business as usual again for NPB’s home run leader on Wednesday, when the Swallows host the Hanshin Tigers.

Balentien entered the All-Star break leading Japan with 32 home runs, Yokohama BayStars slugger Blanco is right behind at 30, and many have begun to publicly wonder if Balentien has a shot at surpassing 50 home runs, or more specifically, if he can get to 55, the single-season record held by Sadaharu Oh, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.

Balentien is aware of the talk and expects the spotlight to burn brighter if he gets within striking distance of the mark.

“It’s something that you can’t run away from,” he said. “Every night you hit a home run, somebody comes to you saying, ‘oh you’re on pace for this many, you’re on pace for that.’ It’s something you cannot run away from. The only thing I can do is try to not think about it. I just try to improve every day and become a better hitter. If I do that, I think I’ll feel happy about myself. I don’t have to go up there and try to do too much to show people that I can get to 40, 50, or 55.”

Balentien is playing as well as he ever has to begin his third season in Japan. He got a late start to the year as he recovered from a groin injury suffered while playing for the Netherlands during the World Baseball Classic, but hit the ground running when he made his debut on April 12.

Even having given everyone else a head start, Balentien has the highest on-base plus slugging percentage in Japan (1.175) and trails only Blanco with 71 RBIs. Balentien also has a .313 batting average, fourth highest in the Central League.

“I’m really proud of him,” said Tohoku Rakuten Eagles star Andruw Jones, who like Balentien is a native of the island of Curacao. “He’s making a great career for himself in Japan.

“He’s learned the league and he’s learned the pitchers and what the pitchers are trying to do against him. That’s why he’s successful.”

On Saturday, Balentien was eager to soak up the All-Star experience.

“We’re in the All-Star Game, we’re having fun and everybody’s seeing if they can break the radar (gun),” he said, referring to pitchers on both teams. “There were a lot of fastballs, so I enjoyed it. You would never see that in a regular game, almost all fastballs.”

Following the final game of the All-Star Series on Monday, Balentien will get back down to the business of trying to maintain his current level of play.

“I gotta thank God for keeping me healthy, that’s the main thing,” Balentien said of his first half of the season. “I was healthy and I was able to play the game the way I know how to play the game. It was just a lot of hard work, and I had a lot of motivation.

“I think when you put in a lot of work and dedication and things like that, all those things will come together, and we’ll see at the end of the year. So far, we’re only at the break, but I’m seeing the results of all the things I did.”