Wladimir Balentien said getting to 55 was “the hard part” in his quest to set a new single-season home run record.
From the looks of things, 56 isn’t going to be a walk in the park either.
The Hanshin Tigers kept the Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger in the yard, Takahiro Arai drove in the tiebreaking run with a sacrifice fly in the seventh, and the visitors left an electric atmosphere at Jingu Stadium 3-2 winners.
“That was a lot of fun,” Tigers starter Jason Standridge said. “It’s like, here it is, let’s go. It was great competition.”
Balentien tied the record with his 55th blast of the year on Wednesday against the Hiroshima Carp, and was 1-for-3 with a single and a walk in Thursday’s game with Hiroshima.
He was 0-for-4 Friday, with the vast majority of the 29,328 in attendance hoping to see history made and roaring each time Balentien swung the bat.
“It made it exciting,” Standridge said.
The fans were ready to explode when Balentein hit a deep fly ball to center, but were disappointed when Shunsuke Fujikawa caught the ball near the wall.
Balentein said he didn’t think that ball would get out.
“I got on the end of the bat,” he said.
He also said he wasn’t concerned by the increased media attention surrounding him as he tries to hit that homer that will break the record.
“Just a few more days,” he said.
Tigers pitchers didn’t shy away from Balentien and offered up a number of fastballs in his four at-bats.
“Everything was on the outside of the plate,” Balentien said. “Nothing I could drive.”
Standridge got Balentien to fly out to the center in the first; struck him out in the third; and got another fly-ball out in the sixth.
“I had one goal coming into the game, and that was not to give up No. 56,” Standridge said.
Balentien hit a weak grounder back to reliever Tomoyuki Kubota in his last at-bat of the night.
The Tigers’ Tsuyoshi Nishioka didn’t get the home run he was looking for either.
After a playful discussion with teammate Matt Murton over who would sit in the “three-hit seat,” Nishioka opened the game with a single, tripled in the fifth and doubled in the seventh, finishing with three hits and a home run shy of the cycle.
Murton homered for Hanshin, and captain Takashi Toritani also drove in a run. Arai finished 1-for-1 with an RBI.
Standridge (8-9) allowed two runs — one earned — to pick up the win. He struck out five and walked two.
Yuichi Matsumoto homered for the Swallows and Shinichi Takeuchi drove in the Birds’ other run.
Starter Ryosuke Yagi was tagged with the loss despite striking out nine in six-plus innings. Yagi (5-10) allowed three runs on eight hits.
Balentien ended the bottom of the first by just missing his record 56th home run, and Murton began the second by hitting his 16th of the season to give the Tigers an early 1-0 lead.
The Swallows got on the board in the fifth, tying the score on Matsumoto’s solo homer.
Nishioka tripled with one out in the fifth and came home on Toritani’s two-out single later in the frame.
The Swallows pulled even again in the sixth after Takeuchi drove in Matsumoto with an RBI single.
A single by Standridge and double from Nishioka put Tigers on second and third to begin the seventh. Arai brought in the tie-breaking run in his a sacrifice fly to make the score 3-2.
Yakult tried to rally against reliever Yasutomo Kubo, loading the bases with one away and Balentien on deck. The Tigers wriggled free when Shingo Kawabata hit into an inning-ending double play.