If there’s a home run derby during this year’s All-Star Series, odds are it won’t be half as exciting as the one Wladimir Balentien and Tony Blanco are currently staging on a near-nightly basis during the regular season.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Balentien, and Blanco, star slugger for the Yokohama BayStars, are currently tied for the most home runs in Japan, with 25 each, and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“Everyone when they play the game, they try to do their best,” Balentien told the Japan Times. “They try to be the best in the game, and try to do the best they can do. I think it’s a great feeling to be in that situation. But, I’m not going up there trying to hit home runs every time. I have two (home run) titles and the main thing is not to win a title but to win a championship and make myself a better hitter.”
If the Central League duo can keep it up for the rest of the year, one, if not both, could reach the 50-home run mark and possibly challenge the single-season record of 55, held by Sadaharu Oh, Tuffy Rhodes, and Alex Cabrera.
“I think these guys are great hitters,” the BayStars’ Alex Ramirez, whose 380 career homers are the second-most by a foreign-born player, said of Blanco and Balentien. “They have great power. I think they’re going to be able to hit a lot of home runs here in Japan.”
A 50-home run season is no easy feat. The last such year came in 2003, when Rhodes hit 51 for the Kintetsu Buffaloes.
Since then, there have only been close calls.
The Chunichi Dragons’ Tyrone Woods hit 47 in 2006, and the Seibu Lions’ Takeya Nakamura had 48 in 2009.
Ramirez finished just shy of 50 in 2010, when he (then with the Yomiuri Giants) and former Hanshin Tigers infielder Craig Brazell each began July with 26, having played 71 and 68 games respectively. Ramirez finished with 49 homers to Brazell’s 47. Nakamura had 20 through 55 games in 2011 and finished with 48. Blanco has played in 68 games this year, while Balentien has logged 56.
“I just do my job, and try to put up good numbers,” Blanco said. “At the end of the season, we’ll see.”
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In his first year with the BayStars, after four with the Chunichi Dragons, Blanco is free from the bonds of pitcher-friendly Nagoya Dome, where he hit 43 home runs in 256 games, and is an even more feared hitter.
The Dominican slugger is going deep every 9.52 at-bats, second only to Balentien’s 8.16, and has a .328 average with 67 RBIs.
“I think it was great for him to get out of Nagoya,” Ramirez said. “I feel that Yokohama Stadium fits him pretty well. He feels very good at home plate. He can hit the ball to all fields. For me, I think he’s going to be able to hit more home runs there, and his batting average is going to be a little bit higher. I think he’s capable of hitting 50 home runs. No doubt. The thing is for him to stay in very good shape the whole year.”
Balentien, in his third year in Japan, began the season on the disabled list due to a groin injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic. He quickly made up for lost time, equalling Blanco’s home run total in 34 fewer at-bats.
“He’s awesome,” Blanco said. “He’s one of the strongest guys I’ve ever seen here in Japan. The good thing is, he’s young. He’s what, 28? So it’s not quite the same for me. He’s going to break a lot of records here. He’s learning. He’s getting the timing of the Japanese pitchers down.”
Balentien’s spring injury came with the unexpected benefit of giving him more time in the batting cage, the groin limited his ability to run, which may have aided his strong start.
“I went to the WBC and I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare myself in Okinawa in camp with the team,” said Balentien, who is hitting .304 with 56 RBIs. “But I think that everything happens for a reason. No one wants to get hurt, but I got hurt, and maybe I had a chance to heal up and try to focus and get a lot of swings in.”
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The recent news about the changes to the official ball hasn’t seemed to have any impact on either player’s approach, as both were proficient home run hitters with the ‘no-fly’ ball that was introduced in 2011.
The rate at which the CL sluggers are knocking balls out of the park may drop as the weather gets warmer and pitchers try to work around them more often.
Still, they look primed to at least make things interesting for the rest of the season.
“I strongly believe one of the two has a chance (at 50 homers),” Ramirz said. “If I have to pick, I think that Blanco would be my guy. But Balentien, he’s also capable of hitting 40-plus home runs.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5