Wladimir Balentien moved one step closer to history, and the Hiroshima Carp remained on track for a long-awaited trip to the postseason.
In a way, everyone went home happy about something.
Balentien connected on his 54th home run of the year, a two-run shot off Carp ace Kenta Maeda in the first inning, but Yoshiyuki Ishihara’s three-run shot in the third helped jumpstart Hiroshima’s 9-3 rout of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Tuesday at Jingu Stadium.
Balentien had to go upstairs to get his bat around a high 151-kph fastball but still muscled it into the stands in left-center for home run No. 54. He said he had mixed emotions after hitting the home run given the way the game ended up.
Only Yomiuri Giants legend Sadaharu Oh, former Kintetsu Buffaloes star Tuffy Rhodes, and ex-Seibu Lions slugger Alex Cabrera, who share the single-season mark of 55, have hit more home runs in one year. Balentien matched the total of Hanshin Tigers great Randy Bass, who hit 54 in 1985, to become the fifth player with at least 54 homers in a season.
After the game, Balentien was asked if he would like Oh to be in attendance once he reached the record and began swinging for No. 56 to break it.
“It has to come from his side,” Balentien said. “If he thinks I have a shot to do it and he feels like he wants to be there to watch it, it’s an honor for me because he’s the greatest home run hitter ever.”
For now, Balentien remains within one fateful swing of equaling the mark.
“I’m a little nervous every time I go up there,” Balentien joked. “I’ve just gotten to the point where now with one swing I can be in history. I can be at the top of the all-time home run list for a single season in Japan.
“After I hit that one today, every at-bat, it was a little nervous.”
Maeda took the fight to Balentien in the first, all but daring him to swing for the fences with a pair of pitches right down the middle to start the at-bat. Balentien fouled off Maeda’s third pitch and laid off a 134-kph slider to make the count 1-2. He connected on the fifth pitch of the at-bat. The homer was Balentien’s second off Maeda this season.
“He threw me all fastballs, only one off-speed pitch,” Balentien said. “I was looking fastball. It was high, but I put good barrel on it.”
The pitch was far out of the strike zone, but Balentien offered at it anyway, and it paid off.
“Sometimes you can put good contact on it, sometimes you can’t,” Balentien said. “Once and awhile you can make contact on those kinds of pitches.”
The Carp hurler still finished with the win and improved to 13-5. Maeda allowed three runs on nine hits and struck out four over six innings.
“He’s one of the best pitchers,” Balentien said. “At some point, you can be lucky enough to hit one off him. This is just one of those days.”
The Carp aren’t chasing history, but rather their first trip to the Central League Climax Series. The Giants and Tigers have all but claimed the top two spots, but Hiroshima began Tuesday with a two-game lead over the Chunichi Dragons for the third and final place.
Ishihara kept Hiroshima on track for that goal with a 2-for-3 night at the plate that included a two-run single and three-run homer.
Brad Eldred had an RBI single and a solo homer in the win and Kila Ka’aihue also went deep for the Carp. Shogo Kimura finished 1-for-3 with an RBI single.
Swallows starter Kenichi Matsuoka (1-3) lasted three innings and allowed six runs — two earned — on five hits. He struck out four and walked two.
Shinya Miyamoto made a pinch-hit appearance for Yakult in the sixth and singled in a run with his only swing of the game. Tetsuto Yamada, Shingo Kawabata and Yuichi Matsumoto all finished with a pair of hits for the Swallows.
Yamada began the bottom of the first with a single and advanced to third after a Tsuyoshi Ueda sacrifice bunt. He tried to come home on Kawabata’s grounder to first, but was thrown out by Carp first baseman Kila Ka’aihue. Balentien stepped to the plate with Kawabata on first and put the Birds up 2-0 with his home run.
The Carp put two on with one out in the second, and Ishihara cashed in on the chance with a game-tying single.
Matsuoka retired the first two batters of the third and looked to be out of the inning when Ryohei Matsuyama swung through a 1-2 forkball in the dirt. Fortune smiled on the Carp as catcher Yuhei Nakamura airmailed the throw to first which kept the inning alive. The next batter, Eishin Soyogi singled, and Shogo Kimura drove in the go-ahead run with a hit to right. Ishihara added to Nakamura’s woes with his three-run homer later in the frame.
Brad Eldred singled in an insurance run for Hiroshima in the next inning to make the score 7-2.
Miyamoto, who is retiring after the season, drove in a run for Yakult with a pinch-hit single in the sixth.
Ka’aihue hit a solo shot in the seventh and Eldred went deep in the ninth to give the Carp a 9-3 advantage.
The teams meet in the second game of their series on Wednesday at Jingu Stadium. The Swallows will send Masanori Ishikawa to the hill, while the Carp’s Kan Otake will be tasked with making Balentien wait a little longer to make history.
Balentien can see the finish line now, but even he is unsure how he’ll react if he’s able to match and eventually break the single-season record.
“It will be something very special,” he said. “Maybe I’ll laugh, maybe I’ll cry. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Giants 2, BayStars 1
At Niigata’s Hard Off Eco Stadium, Shinnosuke Abe hit a solo homer, Jose Lopez broke a 1-1 tie with an RBI double and Tetsuya Utsumi (12-5) worked into the eighth inning as Yomiuri edged Yokohama.
Utsumi allowed six hits but no walks, while striking out four to outduel BayStars ace Daisuke Miura (8-12), who allowed just four hits and a walk over seven innings.
Dragons 2, Tigers 2 (12)
Marines 9, Eagles 2
At Chiba’s QVC Marine Field, Chiba Lotte won its third straight, snapping a four-game losing skid against league-leading Tohoku Rakuten behind Yuki Karakawa (9-9), who allowed a run in seven innings to earn the victory.
Saburo Omura and Kei Hosoya homered in the second and Shunichi Nemoto iced the game in the seventh with a grand slam as the second-place Marines moved to within five games of first place.
Fighters 6, Buffaloes 5
At Sapporo Dome, Haruki Nishikawa broke a 5-5 tie with an eighth-inning solo home run as Hokaido Nippon Ham won a wild contest over Orix.
Rookie Shohei Otani hit a solo homer for the Fighters, while teammate Kenji Sato went 4-for-4 with a three-run double. Aarom Baldiris had a pair of RBI doubles and three RBIs for the Buffaloes.
Lions 5, Hawks 5 (12)
Rasner returns to U.S.
Darrell Rasner, who has saved 17 games since being thrown into the closer role for the Pacific League-leading Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, has returned to the United States, the team announced on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old right-hander, who is in his fifth season in Sendai, left the mound in the Eagles’ Aug. 24 game against Lotte with pain in his right elbow and will have it examined in the United States. Depending on the results of the examination, surgery may be required.
Rasner is 1-2 with a 3.35 ERA in 37 games this season.