Tripping over coconuts and sunbathing tourists was far easier for Wladimir Balentien in his youth than stumbling onto a baseball game. Growing up on the...
PEORIA, Ariz. — Tripping over coconuts and sunbathing tourists was far easier for Wladimir Balentien in his youth than stumbling onto a baseball game.
Growing up on the Caribbean island of Curacao, the baseball prodigy was fortunate to get in a couple of practices and maybe one game per week as a teenager. The aspiring Mariners outfielder, known for explosive natural power, figures the lack of daily repetition early might explain his current tag as somewhat of a hacker.
Improving his plate discipline and making more contact is now the 23-year-old’s primary goal as he attempts to land a backup outfielder job against some stiff competition this spring.
“I’m trying to be a better contact hitter,” said Balentien, who went down swinging in a pinch-hit appearance in Seattle’s 3-3 tie in 10 innings with the San Francisco Giants on Thursday at Peoria Stadium.
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“Every year, it’s getting a little better. Last year, I stuck out 105 times and it was the lowest I’ve ever had. This year, my goal is to have less than 100.”
Two years ago, Balentien struck out 140 times in Class AA. Three years ago, it was 160 strikeouts in Class A ball. But lingering concerns, however minor, about possible holes in Balentien’s swing could ultimately be what lands him at Class AAA once again — at least to start the year.
The remarkable start by Mike Morse could make it all a moot point. Morse went 3 for 3 Thursday, and his .581 batting average in Cactus League games makes him the front-runner to fill that role.
But Balentien isn’t taking any chances.
Mariners manager John McLaren has already indicated he could carry two extra position players and only 11 pitchers. Balentien brings more pure power to the table than Morse, and Balentien has two homers, six doubles and seven runs batted in this spring.
Each morning Balentien heads to the batting cage for drills designed for him to miss the ball less. A coach tosses underhand, and Balentien works at keeping his swing level and not popping balls up.
Unlike most players, who simply swing at every flipped ball, Balentien will force himself to hold back if the ball isn’t in the right spot.
“When I’m working on my soft toss, I can work on my plate discipline,” said Balentien, who has struck out five times in 34 spring at-bats. “To know which kind of balls I can hit and which kind I can’t.”
Balentien ripped 24 home runs, 24 doubles and posted an on-base-plus slugging percentage of .871 for AAA Tacoma last season. Those numbers could have been even better if not for a dislocated finger that hampered his swing the second half of the season.
He later hit a home run and collected five RBI in 22 at-bats as a September call-up by the Mariners. When he returned to Curacao to stay with his mother in the offseason, Balentien had speaking engagements and appearances lined up. Most of those were with Little League organizations and sporting-goods stores that sell to young ballplayers on the island. Little League is huge in Curacao, but Balentien says it’s tough to find quality competition at higher age levels.
Although he now lives in Caracas, Venezuela — the hometown of his wife, Karla — Balentien dreams of becoming the ninth major-leaguer from Curacao. He wants to be a role model for youngsters there, as was his boyhood hero, Andruw Jones, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Curacao native.
Seven TV ads unveiled
Mariners players reacted with laughs and lighthearted ribbing when the team’s seven commercials for 2008, featuring players and staff, were played on a clubhouse monitor.
This year’s 30-second commercials feature Felix Hernandez in a mustache-growing contest; Yuniesky Betancourt doing magic tricks; Jose Vidro revealing he is really a left-handed hitter and that it’s actually a twin brother, Pepe, batting right-handed for the team; Raul Ibanez leading an orientation class for newcomers Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva; J.J. Putz and Kenji Johjima breaking into a dance over a fungo bat; Adrian Beltre acting as a protective screen for the batting-practice pitcher; and Ichiro winning a free suit.
“Hey, Pepe!” players called out to Vidro as he strode by in the clubhouse.
Reliever Chris Reitsma said of Putz: “It’s obvious that J.J.’s white and tall — because he can’t dance.”
Ichiro breaks through
Ichiro collected his first hit of spring training, an infield single in the first inning on what at first appeared to be a routine grounder to second. Giants first baseman Justin Leone had broken off the bag, to his right, in a failed attempt to snag the ball while pitcher Kevin Correia was late in leaving the mound to take the throw from second baseman Eugenio Velez.
It was Ichiro’s only hit of four at-bats, leaving him 1 for 25 on the spring after an 0-for-21 start.
In the clubhouse afterward, he joked about being somewhat disappointed the unusual situation had ended.
“It’s sad to say goodbye,” he said.
Mariners trainer Rick Griffin tried calling out from the dugout to get the game ball. Had he been successful, Ichiro quipped that he was “planning to keep the ball and send it to Cooperstown.”
• No. 1 draft pick Phillippe Aumont was among a dozen players sent to the minors in the first round of spring cuts. None of the players optioned to Class AAA or to minor-league camp came as a surprise.
• Mariners left-hander Jarrod Washburn allowed two first-inning runs, one earned, then tossed four scoreless frames in Thursday’s game before leaving with a 3-2 lead.
• Miguel Cairo clubbed a no-doubt solo homer to left-center in the third inning, highly unusual because he has gone 556 regular-season at-bats without a long ball.
• Willie Bloomquist has a tight quadriceps muscle and won’t play again until Saturday’s game against the Giants.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org