Wladimir Balentien broke Japan’s five-decade-old record for home runs in a season with home runs in the first and third innings at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium.
Balentien hit his 56th and 57th homers of the season yesterday, eclipsing Sadaharu Oh’s record of 55 set in 1964 and ending almost three decades of controversy over repeated attempts to protect it from foreign challengers.
The 29-year-old Yakult Swallows outfielder smashed a two-run homer off Hanshin Tigers pitcher Daiki Enokida in the bottom of the first inning. He followed with a solo shot off Enokida in the third. The Swallows won the game 9-0.
“I want to applaud Balentien on an amazing achievement,” said Maki Murayama, a 38-year-old Tokyo office worker. “This is all I’ve been able to think about the last few days as he was just shy of the record. As a Yakult fan, I won’t ever forget this day.”
Balentien, who had 31 homers in each of his first two seasons with the Swallows, is a native of the Caribbean island of Curacao who played in the U.S. Major Leagues from 2007 to 2009, hitting 15 home runs in 170 games for the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds. The feat ends a controversy around other former Major Leaguers who flirted with breaking the record, only to be walked repeatedly.
Tuffy Rhodes hit 55 home runs in 2001 as did Alex Cabrera in 2002. Both faced Daiei Hawks teams managed by Oh in their final attempts to break his home-run record, and got few pitches anywhere near the strike zone.
Hanshin’s Randy Bass received four straight intentional walks in his team’s final game of the 1985 season, stranding him one home run short of Oh’s mark of 55. The opposing team was the Yomiuri Giants, managed by Oh and the team for which he hit 868 homers and won nine Most Valuable Player awards.
Balentien may face questions about the legitimacy of his home-run total after Nippon Professional Baseball earlier this season acknowledged changing the balls used in games to make them fly farther when hit. NPB’s six Central League teams this year hit 640 homers as of Sept. 12, compared with 454 for the entire 2012 season.
The outfielder is not the only NPB player setting records this season. Masahiro Tanaka, a 24-year-old right-hander with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, recorded his 21st win without a loss, breaking a 56-year-old Japanese pitching record.
Tanaka beat the Orix Buffaloes 6-2 on Sept. 13 in a home game in the northern city of Sendai, breaking the record of Kazuhisa Inao, who started the 1957 season 20-0.