Tanaka, Balentien earn MVP honors

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Masahiro Tanaka pitched his way into the record books. Wladimir Balentien slugged his way there.

The history-making pair crossed paths only once this year — Tanaka got Balentien to fly out in the first inning of Game 1 of the All-Star Series — but came together Tuesday night as Nippon Professional Baseball officially crowned them Japan’s best.

In a surprise to absolutely no one, Tanaka, of the Japan Series-winning Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, was named Pacific League MVP, while Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Balentien ran away with the award in the Central League.

“MVPs have come from championship-winning teams for the most part, so I’m very happy that I won in the same year we won a championship,” Tanaka said.

NPB fans witnessed history this year as Tanaka completed the lion’s share of a record winning streak that spanned across two seasons, and Balentien hit 60 home runs to set a new single-season mark.

“It feels great to win this award,” Balentien said. “I need to thank you guys for voting for me, I need to thank my teammates, I need to thank my coaches, everybody. Because without those guys, I couldn’t get it done. I feel very happy to win this award today.”

Tanaka picked up all 233 first-place votes in the PL race, following in the footsteps of Nankai Hawks greats Tadashi Sugiura (1959) and Katsuya Nomura (1965) as unanimous winners.

He was also a unanimous Best Nine Selection and joined Nomura, his manager from 2006-2009, as the only PL players unanimously selected for both honors in the same season.

Tanaka, who won his second Sawamura Award this year, was a perfect 24-0 during the regular season, and has won 28 consecutive decisions since last losing Aug. 19, 2012. He pushed his overall win streak to 30 with a pair of victories in the postseason.

On Nov. 25, Tanaka was given official certification by Guinness World Records for the most consecutive games won (30), most consecutive regular-season games won (28) and most consecutive games won in a single season (24).

“I hadn’t had a big winning streak before, but my mindset was to focus on pitching one game at a time, and I was able to win in the end,” Tanaka said. “It can’t be done just by one pitcher. I really feel like my teammates helped me this year.”

“Ma-kun” led NPB with a 1.27 ERA this season, recording a save and striking out 183 over 212 innings. His only loss of the year came after a Herculean 160-pitch complete-game effort against the Yomiuri Giants in Game 6 of the Japan Series.

The right-hander came back the very next day to work the ninth and earn a save in the decisive Game 7.

“I think we achieved something really big as a team,” he said. “I feel like I did my part in that process as well. It was really a blessing that I ended up having a positive outcome.”

Tanaka was on the mound for the three biggest wins in Rakuten history, earning saves in the clinching games of the PL Pennant race, PL Climax Series, and Japan Series — all of which the Eagles won for the first time.

He’s the second MVP winner in the Eagles’ brief nine-year history, with Hisashi Iwakuma (who went 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA to claim the award in 2008) the other.

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Yuya Hasegawa was the PL runnerup, and Tanaka’s teammate Casey McGehee, who led the way with 27 second-place votes, finished third.

Tanaka is widely expected to head to the majors over the offseason, provided NPB and MLB come to a agreement on a revised posting system.

He didn’t broach the subject of the majors, responding to a question about next year by saying, “I’m pleased that I came up with this kind of result, but I’m not satisfied and would like to look for better quality in my pitching and have a positive outcome next year.”

Like Tanaka, Balentien won big, picking up 200 first-place votes and an overall point-total of 1,135 in CL voting. Runnerup Shuichi Murata of the Giants was first on 34 ballots and finished with 419 points overall.

Balentien reached heights no batter has ever attained in Japan, hitting 60 home runs to shatter the previous single-season record of 55, first set by Giants legend Sadaharu Oh in 1964 and later matched by Kintetsu Buffaloes slugger Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and the Seibu Lions’ Alex Cabrera in 2002.

He nearly added a Triple Crown to his historic year, ending the year with a .330 batting average and 131 RBIs to trail only the Yokohama BayStars’ Tony Blanco (.333 average and 136 RBIs) in both categories.

“Personally, it was a great season,” Balentien said. “It was a historic season for me. It’s a season that I will never forget. I’ve got a lot of awards, I had a great season, but it’s too bad I couldn’t help my team enough to be in the Climax (Series).

While the Swallows also featured this season’s CL Rookie of the Year, pitcher Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa, the team finished at the bottom of the standings, making Balentien the first CL MVP from a last-place team.

He’s also only the second from a team other than the pennant winner since the start of the two-league era in 1950. Oh is the other, actually doing it twice for the Giants in 1964 and 1974 — years that saw the Kyojin finish third and second, respectively.

“That makes it very special,” Balentien said. “Even though our team wasn’t the winning team this year, I did all I could do to help my team. To win it in this situation is something special for me.”

Balentien is the sixth Swallows player to be named CL MVP, joining Tsutomu Wakamatsu (1978), Jack Howell (1992), Atsuya Furuta (1993, 1997), Tom O’Malley (1995) and Roberto Petagine (2001).

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.