A lot has been going right for the Yakult Swallows this year.
Leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki has been one of the best hitters in the game. The team's 3-4-5 hitters are crushing the ball so far this season. Starting pitchers Yoshinori Sato, Shohei Tateyama and Masanori Ishikawa have been outstanding on the mound, and a bullpen anchored by star closer Lim Chang-yong has been in full shut-down mode.
Under the low-key stewardship of second-year skipper Junji Ogawa, it has all come together--so far, at least--as the Swallows led the Central League with a 12-6-2 record through May 5.
Two early bright spots for the club have been the play of a pair of "killer B" foreigners, one a slugging outfielder in his first year in Japan and the other a second-year pitcher who thought his NPB days were done after last season.
Right fielder Wladimir Balentien has gotten off to a torrid start in his first year in Japanese baseball. Through 20 games played through May 5, "Coco," as he is called by his teammates, has gone deep an NPB-best nine times and is hitting at a .354 clip with 13 RBIs.
"It's something that just clicked," Balentien said before a recent game against the Chunichi Dragons at Jingu Stadium. "I got into a routine where everything is going well now. My swing, everything feels so great, so I'll just keep the same approach I have right now and try to keep it going."
With Josh Whitesell batting third and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (.383 average with six HRs and 15 RBIs through May 5) on fire in the cleanup spot, Balentien is hitting in the five-hole, just ahead of veteran Shinya Miyamoto (.352 average, 13 RBIs).
Balentien, a 26-year-old native of Curacao, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, may be in his first year of Japanese baseball, but this is not his first experience with Japanese ballplayers. Balentien was in the Seattle Mariners organization from 2007-09.
"It's pretty funny, because when I was there (in Seattle) I was playing with Ichiro and (Kenji) Jojima," he said. "I would always play around with them, like, 'Hey, I'm going to play in Japan,' or 'Hey, take me to Japan, I want to play in Japan.' But I was just kidding around. I didn't think that one day I might have a new career in Japan. So it was kind of funny that it did come true."
American right-hander Tony Barnette was with the club last year, but, as he puts it, 2011 "is definitely a new year and it's definitely a new life."
Barnette, 27, who was born in Alaska but grew up in the Seattle area, started 15 games for the Swallows last year, his first in Japan. He started off well but ended up with a 4-5 record and a bloated 5.99 ERA after battling a foot injury.
Yakult was going to take a pass on Barnette this season, but when a South Korean pitcher they planned on signing in the offseason failed his physical, the team called Barnette's agent and he was back in the mix.
"I got lucky that they asked me back, and I'm glad they did, because last year ended not in a way I think I can pitch," Barnette said. "I think I can be successful here. I got a second life here, a new bullpen role, I think everything's going to work out for the best."
Since being converted to a setup role this season, Barnette has been money. He has allowed just one run in nine-and-two-thirds innings while accumulating one win and three holds. He currently sports a microscopic 0.93 ERA.
Not bad for a guy who had spent very little time in the pen before this season.
"I've enjoyed it," Barnette said of his new job. "I think I've been effective in that role, out of the bullpen. Being able to add a little depth to the bullpen has definitely been good for the team, as hot as we are right now. It's nice for me to come in in the seventh inning and be confident that we're going to get to (RHP Kenichi) Matsuoka and Lim.
"That last time I was in the bullpen was for one relief appearance in low-A ball, but that was just because we got snowed out a bunch and I had to get some innings in. I did (spend a bit of time in the bullpen) in the Arizona fall league, but in a consistent bullpen role, I haven't done it since college."
Barnette is sporting a little more facial hair this year, although he admits that his beard is far from the "Fear the Beard" status of San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson.
"Obviously, Brian Wilson's beard is a whole lot of awesome," Barnette pointed out. "I like the facial hair, mostly because I don't have to shave every day, so it's more a lazy factor than a fear factor thing with me."
So far, Barnette is very much enjoying his second life with the Swallows. The only thing that worries him now is that he might miss a wedding later this year--his own.
"If we keep winning like this, the thing's going to get pushed back and pushed back," he said of his scheduled Nov. 11 nuptials. "If we keep winning, we're going to have to change the date."
That might be bad news for his fiancee, but good news for Swallows fans.