As soon as Wladimir Balentien’s bat made contact with Daiki Enokida’s fastball there was no doubt: Japan had just crowned a new home run king.
And the new king’s first decree was that his record total wasn’t high enough yet.
Balentien set the NPB single-season record with his 56th home run of year in the first inning, then hit No. 57 in his next at-bat of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ 9-0 win over the Hanshin Tigers on Sunday night at Jingu Stadium.
“I feel so relieved right now,” Balentien said. “Lot of emotions. Just to get this is something unbelievable. This is (something) that nobody was able to do for 49 years. For me to do it, I can’t even explain what I’m feeling right now.”
The 29-year-old Curacao native broke a four-way tie with Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh, Tuffy Rhodes, and Alex Cabrera, who all have 55, to stand alone as the new record holder.
“It’s amazing that he’s homered at a pace of about once every two games,” Oh said in a statement. “This is far beyond a new NPB record and an overwhelming number. I want to enjoy how far he can take it over the next 18 games with the fans.”
Balentien received hugs from each of his teammates after returning to the dugout and held up a cardboard placard to commemorate home run No. 56. The Swallows, knowing their slugger well, already had a No. 57 placard ready when Balentien went deep in the third.
What made the night even sweeter was that Balentien was able to set the record at home in front of a Yakult fan base that has watched its team struggle this season.
“It’s a lot of history for me already in the park,” Balentien said. “I just feel like I want to share this special moment with the fans.”
Hanshin fans stood and cheered after Balentien’s first homer, a far cry from the environment that met previous challengers to the record. Those players, Randy Bass, who hit 54 in 1985, Rhodes and Cabrera, faced resistance by those who didn’t want a foreign player to break one of Japanese baseball’s hallowed marks.
After hitting No. 56, Balentien blew a kiss into the stands where his mother, Astrid, who arrived in Japan on Thursday, was celebrating. Afterward, she clutched the 57th home run ball as she watched him during the postgame hero interview, and later joined him on the podium.
“I am the happiest mother,” she said later. “I’m so happy that God gave me an amazing son like Coco.”
Balentien came to the plate on Sunday with a runner on second in the first inning and worked the count to 2-1. He ripped the next pitch into the stands in left-center, thrusting his arms into the air as soon as he got his bat around Enokida’s 137-kph offering.
“I was trying to get the run in,” Balentien said. “I been trying too much to hit a home run the last couple of days, so today, my first AB (at-bat), I said I’m gonna relax.”
Once the history-making 56th was out of the way, the pressure was off and Balentien immediately sent a 3-0 slider from Enokida down the left field line for his 57th home run of the year in the third inning.
“When I hit that 56th, it was like, I just got a heavy weight off my back,” he said. “From that moment, to the next AB, to the next one, to the next one, I just felt like it’s a brand new season. It’s just (like) my first couple of ABs of the year.”
Balentien’s first-inning swing not only brought an end to Oh’s claim to the record, but also closed the book on the controversy that has surrounded the mark for more than two decades.
Oh, a former Yomiuri Giants star and legendary figure in Japan, set the previous record in the 140th game of the 1964 season.
Bass hit 54 homers with two games left in the 1985 season, which was 130 games, and was pitched around by the Yomiuri Giants, who were managed by Oh, so that the record could not be matched or broken, with the Yomiuri catcher even saying ‘gomennasai’ as Bass was intentionally walked four times in the finale.
Rhodes tied the mark late in the 2001 season and received similar treatment from the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, who, as fate would have it, were managed by Oh. A Hawks coach later admitted to not wanting to see the record fall into foreign hands. The same happened to Cabrera when he hit his 55th in 2002. Oh, Rhodes and Cabrera all competed in 140-game seasons.
Seasons last for 144 games now, but Balentien reached 57 in the Swallows’ 126th contest. It actually was the 113th for Balentien, who missed the start of the season with a groin injury suffered while playing for the Netherlands in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Sunday was Balentien’s 11th multihomer game of the season. It was fitting his record-setting night came in support of rookie pitcher Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa, who tossed a shutout.
Balentien is hitting .479 with 16 home runs and 34 RBIs in games Ogawa (14-4) has started.
Balentien tied the record on Wednesday night against Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kan Otake and went to the plate 13 times before finally breaking through on Sunday against Enokida, who he was facing for the first time this season.
Carp extend winning run
Kenta Maeda (14-5) allowed four base runners over seven innings and drove in the game’s first run as the third-place Hiroshima Carp won for the fifth straight time, beating the Central League-leading Yomiuri Giants 10-0 on Sunday.
The win at Mazda Stadium kept the Carp 3½ games ahead of the fourth-place Chunichi Dragons in the fight for the CL’s final playoff spot.
Dragons 8, BayStars 7
At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi reliever Toshiya Okada (7-5) pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the fourth, and the Dragons scored five times in the bottom of the inning in a come-from-behind victory over Yokohama.
Lions 3, Marines 2 (11)
At Seibu Dome, Chris Carter’s pinch-hit RBI single tied the game 2-2 in the seventh and rookie Yuji Kaneko’s RBI single won it in the 11th inning as Seibu came from behind to beat second-place Lotte. The Marines fell seven games back of the rained-out Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Hawks 7, Fighters 6 (11)
At Yafuoku Dome, Fukuoka Softbank overcame a five-run deficit to tie it against Hokkaido Nippon Ham closer Hisashi Takeda in the ninth on a Nobuhiro Matsuda RBI single. Yuya Hasegawa doubled home the winning run in the 11th as the Hawks closed to within one game of second-place Chiba Lotte.
Buffaloes at Eagles — ppd.