Just four games into the 2011 Nippon Professional Baseball season, Yokohama BayStars slugger Terrmel Sledge already has five home runs under his belt.
As if that's not shocking enough, his BayStars, perennial cellar-dwellers that they are, are 3-1 in the Central League after taking two-of-three from the defending CL champion Chunichi Dragons and then scoring a dramatic 9-7 victory over the Yakult Swallows on Friday afternoon at Jingu Stadium, courtesy of an eighth-inning Tatsuhiko Kinjo three-run, pinch-hit homer.
These BayStars are showing some pop, all right. Sure, it's early--very early, in fact--so enjoy it while you can.
"This is by far the hottest (start in my career), I can't deny that," Sledge said after Friday's win, in which he cranked a two-run shot in the fifth to give him 12 RBIs this year. "I'll just ride the wave."
In the only loss for the BayStars so far this year, an 8-7 defeat to Chunichi last Wednesday, the soft-spoken Sledge hammered three home runs.
With Sledge hitting third, two-time CL home-run champ Shuichi Murata batting cleanup and Brett Harper hitting in the five-hole, this team could potentially put plenty of runs on the board. Harper, who hit .316 with 19 homers and 56 RBIs in just 64 games last season, already has two jacks of his own this season, including one on Friday.
"On paper, we look pretty good, up and down," said Sledge, in his second year with Yokohama after two seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Sledge credits his hot start to a sense of familiarity, this being the second season on the CL circuit for the 34-year-old outfielder.
"From playing in this league last year, I'm more accustomed to the way they throw me," he said. "It was a little different coming from the Pacific League. I see why guys stay in the same league. They become accustomed to all the pitchers."
Sledge is no stranger to the longball, having averaged more than 23 per season in his first three years in Japan. But he knows that it's usually good pitching that carries successful ballclubs, and that has hurt this team in the past.
The BayStars have finished last the past three seasons, but Sledge, who was born in North Carolina to a Korean mother, says this team just feels different.
"It's a long season but I'll tell ya, inside the clubhouse, in the dugout, we're a different team this year," said Sledge, who played in nearly 300 MLB games and hit the first home run in Washington Nationals history. "It's almost like we got sick of losing. Everyone came out this year wanting to prove a point--that you just can't walk over us.
"It's a lot more fun winning than losing. Despite the individual home-run accomplishments, it's more fun that the whole team is pitching in and we're winning."
Only time will tell if they can keep it going.