There normally wouldn’t be many reasons to keep close tabs on a 35-57-1 team that’s 22½ games out of first place.
Then again, most teams in that position don’t have a pair of players as worthy of the spotlight as the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ duo of Wladimir Balentien and Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa.
The Swallows are bringing up the rear in the Central League — and all of Japan for that matter — but Balentien and Ogawa could help keep the team in the headlines and on the back pages deep into a season that went sour almost from the outset after a rash of injuries.
Yakult doesn’t seem to have much left to play for — though the Birds are mathematically a good run away from the thick of the race for third place — but if nothing else, the achievements Balentien and Ogawa are pointed toward give the team and its fans something to rally around.
Balentien is chasing history. He hit home runs Nos. 36, 37 and 38 over the weekend and down the stretch could be in position to challenge the single-season record of 55, held by Sadaharu Oh, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.
A lot still has to happen for Balentien to reach that point, but the slugger is currently going deep at the rapid-fire rate of 7.34 at-bats per home run (AB/HR) though there is a lot of season left for pitchers to alter their approach against him.
Oh’s AB/HR was 8.59 when he set the record in 1964, Rhodes’ was at 10 when he tied the mark in 2001, and Cabrera clocked in at 8.12 when he matched Oh and Rhodes in 2002.
Even without breaking the record, “Coco” is 12 homers away from becoming the first player to reach 50 since Rhodes hit 51 for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2003.
Thirteen of Balentien’s homers, including two on Saturday, have come in support of rookie right-hander Ogawa — Balentien is hitting .519 with 28 RBIs with Ogawa on the mound.
Nicknamed Ryan because he adopted his pitching style, most notably his leg kick, from MLB Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, Ogawa has won his last seven decisions and has a shot at leading the CL in wins.
The last rookie to do that was current Boston Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara, who won 20 for the Yomiuri Giants in 1999.
Ogawa picked up his latest win with eight strong innings against the Carp to pick up his league-leading 12th win.
“It wasn’t on my mind,” he said after Saturday’s game. “I just take it one game at a time. I feel it’s more of a team victory.”
Ogawa hasn’t dropped a decision since June 8, and has only lost twice all season. He’s fourth in the CL with a 2.67 ERA and has 83 strikeouts.
Balentien and Ogawa reaching milestones won’t guarantee the Swallows a spot in the playoffs or even a winning record.
What it does is give fans something to celebrate in the midst of a disappointing season, and gives the team more than pride to play for if it falls completely out of playoff contention.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were in a similar position in 2008, when the team slumped to a fifth-place finish but was at least able to celebrate helping Hisashi Iwakuma become the first pitcher to win 20 games since Uehara in 1999.
Injuries hurt the Swallows early, and they’ve underachieved for most of the year.
Not much has gone their way in 2013, but helping Balentien and Ogawa along may help salvage two very bright spots out of what has been a trying year.
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