Every time Wladimir Balentien hits a home run, and he’s hit quite a few since joining the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in 2011, he has to go back to the drawing board and recalibrate his approach.
Because he knows in the time it took to jog around the bases, return to the dugout and be congratulated by his teammates and Swallows mascot Tsubakuro, the opposing team has already cooked up some way to stop him the next time.
“They try everything,” Balentien says with a laugh. “You know Japanese baseball, you get a home run and they’ve already figured out how to get you out in the next at-bat. That’s why you have to be smart when you’re up there hitting.”
Balentien has kept opposing pitchers on their toes this season with a .273 average and 67 walks. He leads the Central League with 30 home runs, second only to the Seibu Lions’ Hotaka Yamakawa, who has 35, among all NPB batters.
Balentien now has seven seasons with 30 or more, with 2015, when he played just 15 games due to injury, his only NPB campaign with fewer than 30.
“To be able to play in this league, it’s not easy,” Balentien said. “To have a chance to do that every single year, that just shows you all the work I put in, and of course, I feel good about myself and my career in Japan.”
Balentien is also leading the CL, and the rest of Japan, with 100 RBIs. Chunichi’s Dayan Viciedo is second in the league with 74. The RBI title is one that’s eluded Balentien so far, and he’s looking to finally cross it off his NPB bucket list.
“Every year you play, you wanna win,” Balentien said. “But at the same time, you want to set personal goals for yourself. At the end of the season, you see if you achieved your goals. That was one of my goals, to win an RBI title. Because I have home run titles, I have won MVP, All-Star, Best Nine, almost everything, and I have never had an RBI title.
“The year I drove in 131 (2013), I ended up second (the BayStars’ Tony Blanco had 136). So it’s crazy. So far, I’m in good condition and a good situation. I hope I can stay healthy and continue to play the way I’ve been playing. It’s also thanks to my teammates. Because If they don’t put me in those situations, it isn’t possible.
As Balentien tries to reel in his first RBI crown, the biggest threat to his fourth home run title may be teammate Tetsuto Yamada. In addition to being on track for an unprecedented third Triple Three season, Yamada is second in the CL with 28 homers.
The pair have homered in the same game 10 times this year, with the Birds 9-1 in those contests.
“It’s something great,” Balentien said. “At the same time you’re having a great season, you’re competing with your teammate and you’re winning ballgames. Actually, we don’t compete. A lot of people look at it like that, but we’re just blessed to be having the seasons we’re having. I hit one, he hits one. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning games.”
Yakult is just 51-52-1, but is in second place in the standings in a strange year in the CL.
The Swallows finished sixth last season and were particularly stagnant at the plate. They’ve turned things around in a big way in 2018. The Birds are currently second in the CL with 472 runs scored and have already eclipsed their 2017 total of 449. They’ve also hit 96 home runs, one more than all of last season.
“Everybody came into camp and worked hard,” Balentien said. “We had some new goals, because last year we weren’t that good as an offensive team. So far, you can see all the work we put in, it’s showing. Not just myself, but the whole team.”
For Balentien, that’s included holding his own in the cat-and-mouse game between batter and pitcher.
“Being in this league, you have to make adjustments every single day,” he said. “You can have a great series, and they (opposing teams) have that in mind the next time. You have guys scouting in the stands from the other teams, so they try to adjust to the way you are hitting. You just have to be very, very smart and focused during games. Because you don’t have time to make adjustments tomorrow or the next day. You have to adjust after the first AB. Japanese pitchers, they work you so much.”
Balentien also said that’s part of the fun.
“I like the challenge,” he said. “I like when they try to make it tougher on me. I like that challenge. I think when they do that, they start getting the best of me too.”
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