A new home run king was crowned in Japan on Sunday. Wladimir Balentien, a former major leaguer who spent time with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds, delivered his 56th and 57th home runs to break the Nippon Professional Baseball single-season home run record of 55. The record was previously shared by Japan's all-time home run king Sadaharu Oh (1964), Tuffy Rhodes (2001) and Alex Cabrera (2002).
After falling into a home run drought of sorts — Balentien hadn't homer since Wednesday — the 29-year-old outfielder ended the drama early on Sunday when he connected for the record-breaking home run in the first inning. The two-run shot gave the Tokyo Yakult Swallows an early three run lead. Just two innings later, Balentien went deep again for a solo homer to pad his new mark and put Tokyo on the road to their 9-0 victory.
Balentien setting the new single-season record is a monumental moment in Japanese baseball history. It's also one many felt a foreign player would never have a fair shot to break.
The single-season home run-record is one of the most closely watched in Japanese baseball because of Oh’s stature in the game and the multiple failed attempts by foreign players to break the mark. Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes, and Alex Cabrera — not exactly household names — got to 55 in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Neither Rhodes nor Cabrera saw many hittable pitches after tying Oh’s record, raising accusations that Japanese players were protecting the record for the home-grown hero.
Though it wasn't as pronounced as Rhodes and Cabrera before him, Balentien did have to deal with pitchers working around him frequently this season. In 112 games entering play on Sunday, he had 91 walks compared to 89 strikeouts. He had to pick his spots to take to his big swings, and to his credit he picked those spots well. Now, with 17 games left on the NPB schedule, Balentien can make a run at the 60 home run mark and perhaps even 65 with a strong finish.