/ |

Swallows’ Balentien keeps focus on steady improvement

by Jason Coskrey

Wladimir Balentien launched a few balls to the farthest reaches of Tokyo Dome during batting practice on Sunday, turned his hat backwards and, as he sat down near the visitor’s dugout, proclaimed that his timing was off.

But, he added, “we still have a month to go.”

With Opening Day fast approaching — Balentien’s Tokyo Yakult Swallows begin the season at home against the Yokohama BayStars March 28 — the Yakult star is focusing on rounding himself back into the form that saw him hit a NPB single-season record 60 home runs a year ago.

Hitting another 60 home runs isn’t what Balentien has in mind this season, though he certainly wouldn’t mind it. Instead, he’s tried to mostly forget about a mostly unforgettable 2013 season.

“Last year was last year,” he said. “It’s over. This is a new year. I’m a new player and I’m just continuing to do what I know I can do. I’m not trying to do too much, I’m not even trying to hit 60 homers. I just try to be a better player and a better teammate every year.”

The Curacao native is getting back into the swing of things after an offseason during which he allowed himself a brief respite from all things baseball.

Balentien returned to his homeland for the first time in two years and was celebrated like a king for his exploits on the field and in November came back to Japan to accept the Central League MVP Award.

“I was just relaxed and tried to take all the baseball stuff out of my mind,” Balentien said. “I was just enjoying my offseason.”

The winter took a darker turn Jan. 13, when he was arrested on charges of domestic violence and false imprisonment in Florida. It was announced later in the month that he would face a lesser charge of unlawful entry.

Balentien apologized to the Swallows and his fans from the U.S. and, after a judge ruled he would be allowed to travel to Japan for the upcoming season, apologized again after returning to Tokyo.

Now, he’s ready to move on and focus on his performance on the field.

“From my side, I think I’m ready to go,” he said Sunday. “I left everything in the past. Things happen, people make mistakes. But I paid for it and now I’m ready to play baseball.”

Things were mostly normal for Balentien at spring camp, with the major exception his being asked to play first base rather than right field, his normal position.

It was hardly a smooth transition, and the experiment seems to have fizzled after just a few adventurous outings in the field during the exhibition season.

“I was a third baseman coming up, but I never played first base,” Balentien said on Sunday. “I haven’t played infield in 15 years, so it was tough. I only played four games, so it’s hard to tell. If I’m there for a month or two, I could do a better job.”

Even so, he sounded happy about a potential move back to the outfield.

“I want to concentrate on hitting, and being at first base I would make a lot of errors,” he said. “That might affect my hitting, because then I’d be thinking about my defense.”

Despite a myriad of distractions earlier this year, the Swallows are counting on Balentien to keep his focus.

They covet him for his bat and he’ll have to play a large role at the plate if the team hopes to improve on last year’s last-place finish.

Balentien knows which side his bread is buttered on as well, and is taking the necessary steps to be in tip-top shape before the season begins.

He estimated that he’s at “70 percent right now,” and expects everything to progress smoothly.

“Yesterday (Saturday) was my fourth game,” he said. “So the timing is a little bit off, but we still have a month to go before the season starts. I think by two weeks, I will be ready.”