Wladimir Balentien sets HR mark

TOKYO -- Former major leaguer Wladimir Balentien hit his 56th and 57th home runs on Sunday, breaking the Japanese single-season record set by legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh 49 years ago.

Balentien hit a three-run homer in the first inning of Sunday's game, sending the ball over the left-field wall at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium to give his Yakult Swallows an early lead over the Hanshin Tigers. He then added a solo shot in the third for No. 57.

Oh set the record of 55 in 1964. While it was equaled by ex-major leaguers Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002, many felt Oh used his position as a manager to prevent both players from breaking it.

"I want to thank the fans for all their support,'' Balentien said. "It was a great feeling. I don't think I will ever feel anything like that again in my life.''

The 29-year-old Balentien missed the first 12 games of this season because of a leg injury sustained while playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.

Balentien's challenge of Oh's record comes in a season in which there is controversy over a new, livelier baseball. In June, Japanese baseball officials admitted they introduced the new official ball this season without notifying players. The new ball has resulted in a dramatic increase in home runs.

Rhodes and Cabrera tied Oh's record with several games left in the season but were then walked repeatedly by teams managed by Oh, who later denied instructing his pitchers to not challenge either player.

Randy Bass hit 54 homers in 1985 but fell short in the last game of the season when the pitcher from the Yomiuri Giants, then managed by Oh, walked him in his last at-bat, preventing Bass from tying the record.

Oh is a legend in Japan. His 868 career home runs, which surpassed Hank Aaron's then major league record of 755, made him a national hero.

"Oh is the home run king and I have a lot of respect for him,'' Balentien said. "To be able to tie him and then pass him is something very special for me.''

The single-season home run record is also highly regarded, and former New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui wore No. 55 in recognition of it.

The closest Matsui got to breaking Oh's record was 50 homers in 2002, when he played for the Giants.

While Rhodes, Cabrera and Bass may have been intentionally prevented from breaking Oh's record because they were foreign players, attitudes in Japan have changed over the years as more and more Japanese players excel in the major leagues.

The 73-year-old Oh is no longer actively involved in Japanese baseball and serves as an honorary chairman of the Softbank Hawks, the team he managed when Rhodes and Cabrera were attempting to break his record.

Oh has often said he has no problem with his record being broken as long as it's done by a wide margin and not just one or two homers. Balentien has 17 games left to add to his tally.

Balentien, a native of Curacao, played for the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds before signing with the Swallows in 2011. He hit a Central League-leading 31 homers in each of his first two seasons in Japan.