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Home run king Balentien nearing another conquest

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Wladimir Balentien has hit more home runs than any NPB player has ever hit in a single season and through Sunday had 13 games left to add to his record total which stood at 58.

As if Balentien’s year wasn’t already impressive enough, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger is making a run at the first Triple Crown season by a Central League player since 1986.

After Saturday’s game against the Hanshin Tigers, Balentien led the CL with a .333 average, and the aforementioned 58 homers.

The one Triple Crown category Balentien doesn’t lead is RBIs, where he trails the Yokohama BayStars’ Tony Blanco 125-122.

There is no surprise to see Balentien at or near the top of the home run and RBI charts, but after hitting .247 in his first two years in Japan, his perch atop the batting average ranking is somewhat unexpected.

“I always believed that I could be a .300 hitter,” Balentien told the Japan Times recently. “I’m not saying I could win a title, because I’m a power hitter and sometimes it’s hard for power hitters to hit long balls and hit singles and have a high average.

“This year I have discipline at the plate. I think my best success so far is taking the walks (he has 97). I don’t try to do too much, I just take what the game gives me. I think when you get a lot of walks, that means you recognize the pitches and you’ve been swinging at good pitches. When you swing at good pitches, you have a lot of chances to be successful.”

There have been 11 Triple Crown seasons — by seven players — in NPB history.

The last came in 2004, when Fukuoka Daiei Hawks star Nobuhiko Matsunaka led the Pacific League with a .358 average and 120 RBIs while finishing tied with Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Fernando Seguinol with a league-best 44 home runs.

Hanshin Tigers great Randy Bass was the last triple crown winner from the CL, hitting a single-season record .389 with 47 home runs and 109 RBIs in 1986. This after hitting .350 with 54 homers and 134 RBIs to win the triple crown in 1985.

Bass is one of two foreign players to win the Triple Crown, the other being former Hankyu Brave Boomer Wells.

Bass is also one of three players to win the Triple Crown in consecutive seasons, with Yomiuri Giants legend Sadaharu Oh (1973-74) and former Lotte Orions star Hiromitsu Ochiai (1985-86) the others.

Ochiai won his first in 1982 and is the all-time leader with three.

Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe flirted with the Triple Crown last season, leading Japan with a .340 average and 104 RBIs. Abe finished the year with 27 homers, second to Balentien’s 31.

Hard to follow: Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka threw eight strong innings against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Saturday afternoon to improve to 22-0 on the season.

Tanaka has given the Eagles a big boost on the mound, and the Pacific League leaders are 24-1 in his 25 starts this season.

The problem for Rakuten is finding a suitable follow-up act.

Since the start of the season, Rakuten is just 10-15 on the days after Tanaka starts.

Ma-who?: While Rakuten’s Masahiro Tanaka (22-0) continues to lap up the lion’s share of attention from media and fans, deservedly so, his World Baseball Classic teammate and Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda has put together a pretty nice season himself.

Maeda pitched the Carp past the Yomiuri Giants for his second straight win on short rest, tossing six shutout innings to improve to 15-5 with a 1.86 ERA.

“Maeken” is second only to Tanaka in both wins and ERA, and while he doesn’t have a 22-game winning streak this year like Tanaka, he hasn’t dropped a decision since July 7, as he leads the Carp closer to their first-ever Central League Climax Series berth.