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Good health keys Pena’s torrid start

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

After hitting his ninth home run of the year a few hours earlier, Wily Mo Pena insisted there was nothing special behind his hot start to the year.

He didn’t discover any new techniques, have any game-changing epiphanies or anything of the sort. No, the major difference between this year and the last is that for the first time in a long time, Pena simply feels good, and that has translated into production at the plate.

“The key is that I’m healthy,” Pena told The Japan Times on Friday at Seibu Dome. “Last year I wasn’t healthy. I had a huge problem with my knee. That’s why I wasn’t able to hit, why I wasn’t able to do anything.”

The 32 year-old is on a tear early in the season and has nine home runs, tying him with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Wladimir Balentien for the most in NPB, a .299 average and 18 RBIs.

Pena is embarking on his third year in Japan and looking to bounce back from a rough 2013 campaign.

He made his NPB debut in 2012 with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and hit .280 with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs in 130 games, also making the Pacific League All-Star team and the season-ending PL Best Nine squad.

His second year didn’t go nearly as smoothly. Pena was hampered by a knee injury and in July went to the U.S. to have surgery on his meniscus. He missed all of that month, as well as all of August. He ended the season with a .233 average, one home run and 16 RBIs in 2013, having played in just 55 games.

The Hawks cut ties with him over the offseason and he signed with Orix, which was in the market for a bat after Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho signed with the Hawks as a free-agent.

“This year, my goal for myself was to get my knee ready after the surgery,” Pena said. “Now I’m healthy, and everybody can see the difference.”

Now that he’s got his legs back under him, so to speak, Pena is eager to pick up where he left off two seasons ago and leave 2013 in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t have to prove anything, I just have to play my game,” Pena said. “When someone’s hurt, there’s nothing they can do. They just have to work hard and show that last year was a bad year and this year is a new year.”

Ready for an encore: The Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Wladimir Balentien put on his own personal fireworks display over the past few games, hitting seven home runs over a span of nine game dating back to April 9.

That surge has pushed Balentien to the top of the home run charts in the Central League with nine in just 18 games. The Curacao native didn’t hit his ninth home run until May 4, last season and went on to hit 60 to set a new single-season record.

The reigning three-time CL home run king is off to a hot start again and he could join an exclusive club if his bat stays hot.

There have been just nine players in the history of Japanese baseball to record a 50-homer season. Of those players, only two, Hiromitsu Ochiai and Alex Cabrera, were also able to hit 50 the following season.

Ochiai slugged 52 for the Lotte Orions in 1985 and hit 50 more in 1986, also winning the Triple Crown in the PL in both those seasons. Cabrera tied Sadaharu Oh and Tuffy Rhodes for the then-single-season record of 55 in 2002 and managed to blast another 50 over the fences in 2003.

Here’s looking at you: The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks announced that they would commemorate their 25th year in the city by donning the uniforms the first Fukuoka iteration of the franchise wore from 1989-1992 after making the move from Osaka, where the team was known as the Nankai Hawks from 1947-1988.

This of course marks a return of the team’s popular “Gatchaman” batting helmet which was designed to look like the face of a hawk with fierce, piercing eyes that looks back out toward the mound and resembled helmets worn by characters in the popular anime series “Gatchaman.

The team had planned to sell 50 replica helmets on its website for ¥25,000 yen a pop, but demand has been so great the club decided to make more of the helmets available until April 30, or until the second run is sold out.

Long road back: Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yuki Saito allowed two runs on four hits and struck out five in a start for the (ni-gun) Kamagaya Fighters Friday. Saito finished outside of the decision in the Fighters’ 4-3 loss to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ farm team.

Saito made just one appearance during an injury-plagued 2013 season and has been beset by subpar performances this year, allowing seven runs — six earned — in 7⅓ innings.

Saito was drafted to great fanfare in 2010 after years of being among the most celebrated amateur players in Japan for his exploits both in high school and college.

He hasn’t yet lived up to the hype and is 11-16 with a 3.64 ERA as a professional. When he does make it back to the top team, he’ll be looking for his first win since 2012.