Wladimir Balentien laughed his familiar laugh as he held court in the visitor’s dugout at Tokyo Dome, making rapid-fire transitions between a number of topics, from the yakiniku he ate in Okinawa, to teammate Tetsuto Yamada or whatever else popped into his head at the time.
There weren’t as many happy moments last season, as Balentien struggled through a frustrating, injury-filled campaign. Sure, he celebrated when the Swallows clinched the Central League pennant, and again when the team qualified for the Japan Series, but getting to that point was a chore.
He’s back this year, his sixth in NPB, and determined to keep all of that in the past. That ‘Coco’ is even in Japan now means things are already better than they were last season, when he was back home rehabbing an injury.
“I feel great,” Balentien told The Japan Times. “I had a great camp. I put in some great work. I’m just ready for the season now.”
Balentien is hopeful his hard-slugging ways return with his health. The Swallows star won the Central League home run title from 2011-2013 and is eager to reclaim the crown.
“I wasn’t able to do that the last two years because of injuries, but with a healthy year this year and hard work, I hope I can get back on track to being the player everybody wants to see this year,” he said.
Swallows fans didn’t see much of Balentien last year. He went through a lengthy recovery process after offseason surgery on his left Achilles in 2014, and missed the first 22 games of the 2015 season. He suffered another leg injury in his first game back, and didn’t play with the ichi-gun team again until Sept. 18, making just 15 appearances during the regular season. He hit one home run. Balentien played in all nine of Yakult’s games during the postseason, going 7-for-29 with a pair of RBIs.
While his teammates were in the thick of a tight pennant race last year, Balentien was mostly at Yakult’s minor-league facility in Saitama Prefecture, trying to work his way back.
“It was hard,” he said. “It was the first time in my career I missed spring training, at any level. So it was kind of tough for me. I was rehabbing, but it’s not the same. Then I was able to come here (Japan) and continue my rehab and watch the games.
“That was tough too, because I wanted to be out there. But like everyone knows, I tried to get out there and hurt myself again. So it was a tough year for me all around. I’m glad it’s all over. I’m not looking back, I’m just looking forward to having a great 2016.”
Balentien says manager Mitsuru Manaka has talked to him about playing time and ways to make sure the star slugger stays healthy. The Swallows could really use Balentien’s bat as they try to defend the CL title after breaking the hold the Chunichi Dragons and Yomiuri Giants had held on the pennant since 2006.
So far, Balentien says, the Swallows aren’t worried about beginning the season as the team everyone is trying to dethrone.
“Outside the team, a lot of people look at those things,” Balentien said. “Inside that dugout, inside that clubhouse, we don’t feel that way. We don’t feel any pressure. We were the champions last year. Everybody wants to beat us.
“The young players who had that great experience last year, I think it’s less pressure for them this year. So I think they’re going to play loose and they’re going to continue to battle and play hard everyday. That’s all we can do and we hope we can repeat.”
As for what to expect out of Balentien, he says to look out for the Coco of old.
“The same guy you guys saw a couple of years ago,” he said. “I’ll go up there, try to fight every AB, try to do all I can and hit those home runs that they’re used to seeing.”