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Swallows' Balentien flying high after sluggish spring

by John E. Gibson (Jun 5, 2011)

Wladimir Balentien said he ended up in Japan because he was only given a short look as an everyday player in the major leagues. He also said a bad spring had him worried about a long summer with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

The first-year import hit .205 (8-for-39) with 15 strikeouts in 12 spring games while trying to adjust to the nuances of the game here. But he has rebounded from a stumbling start, sparking talk of a triple-crown season.

Going into Saturday's game against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Balentien led Japan in home runs with 13, and was tops in the Central League in average at .341 and tied for third with 23 RBIs.

"When he saw him in camp, we couldn't help but be worried," Swallows batting coach Shinichi Sato said Friday at Jingu Stadium.

"But he's doing OK now, don't you think?"

The 26-year-old Balentien, who spent 2003-09 in the Seattle Mariners organization before going to the Cincinnati Reds, is more than just OK. But it came after some suffering.

His ineptitude at the plate during the exhibition season caused self doubt to creep in, and his confidence shriveled. But the native of Curacao, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, kept believing in his ability, and his red-hot start is a huge reason the Swallows lead the CL.

"In the beginning of spring training--I can't lie to you--I was looking very, very bad. I even thought I might not be able to have success in this league," he admitted.

"But I believed in myself every day. It doesn't matter how it goes today or how it goes tomorrow, because in this game you always have another day.

"If you don't get it today, tomorrow you have an opportunity, so I always believe in myself, and that's the biggest thing."

Sato said the biggest reason for Balentien's success is his analytical side.

"He really studies the opposition," Sato said. "Of all the foreign players I've seen, he's the most hard-working when it comes to preparation.

"He certainly has the ability and the power, but he is also good at game planning," said Sato, who said the goal is to get the right-handed hitter to increase his quality at-bats.

"He's hitting, but I want him to cut down on the number of bad at-bats he's having."

Balentien said adjusting to the delivery of Japanese pitchers was a significant change that hampered him in the spring, but he made that adjustment, as well as learning to deal with fewer fastballs on which to feast.

"My biggest adjustment has been to try and lay off as many offspeed pitches in the dirt as I can," he said.

"If I don't swing at those pitches, I can walk or get better pitches to hit and that's what will get me more success in my career. I can have a long career here if I keep doing those things."

As for Balentien's run at becoming Japan's first triple-crown winner since the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks' Nobuhiko Matsunaka did it in 2004, Sato said: "I want him to get it, but I don't want him to try to get it.

"That's the kind of thing that comes with putting a good season together."

Balentien puts on a brief find-the-TV-camera celebration on homers, conjuring up comparisons to former Swallows slugger Alex Ramirez, the 11th-year Venezuelan who flew the coop for the Yomiuri Giants after the 2007 season.

Balentien said Ramirez has pumped the bar up pretty high for foreign players here.

"He's a great hitter and he's a star here in Japan," Balentien said. "I wish one day I can have the same ability to hit in this league and be a good and respected hitter like he is."

In the meantime, he said the Swallows have to continue to earn respect in the pennant race.

"We're doing the little things we have to do--that's why we are where we are," he said. "We're not going out there every day looking for someone to hit a five-run home run. We just bunt them over and try to bring them in with a hit.

"The best thing we're doing now is pitching and defense. If we keep doing those things, we have a chance to make it to the playoffs. And when we can get there, we will turn it on and see if we can win the whole thing."


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