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05/27/08 10:18 PM ET
Balentien learning on the job
Outfielder shakes off pressure while refining swing in bigs
By Jesse Baumgartner / MLB.com
SEATTLE -- Wladimir Balentien has had quite the month. Called up April 30, the Mariners outfielder started that same day and has played in 22 games since. There have been highs -- a home run that first day -- and four so far, lows -- 27 strikeouts in 79 at-bats -- and everything in between. Call it the education of a young hitter, using the trial by fire as the main scholastic tool. "Obviously, his Minor League career was good, but it's kind of like all that stuff he did before gets you here, now it's back to Step 1," Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "The big leagues is totally different in the sense that the game's a little faster, the pitchers are a little better, so there's no real easy ones that he can gang up on -- so it's a constant battle every at-bat." Balentien earned the right to return to Step 1 by hitting .254 with six homers and 20 RBIs in just 17 games with Triple-A Tacoma. But he and fellow Ranier Jeff Clement didn't get the cozy, ease-in treatment most prospects might receive, because the Mariners needed offense -- the quicker the better. "It was hard for them to get their feet on the ground," manager John McLaren said. "Everybody was pressing and there was a little tension. It was tough." Clement became a casualty by hitting just .167 during his 15 games in Seattle. He mentioned on May 18, the day of his demotion, that he had listened to too many ideas and got away from what made him successful in the Minor leagues. Despite the more high-profile, high-stakes environment, Balentien maintains the pressure hasn't gotten to him. And maybe he's right -- either that, or he's too young to sense it. Still, the outfielder is only a month into his first prolonged Major League stint, and even an interview request draws some nervous laughs and smiles. "No pressure at all," the Curacao native said. "I know my job, I know what I got to do. I just have to go up there and try to do what I have to do without pressure." The first 13 games of his big league season produced four home runs and an impressive .814 OPS. Since then, the going has been a little rockier. His current stats sit at a .215 batting average, .295 on-base percentage, .405 slugging percentage and the four homers to go along with nine RBIs. "Jeff's working with him a lot behind the scenes," McLaren said. "We're trying to get his feet on the ground and get strikes to hit and go to the other field, which he's very capable of doing." What Pentland has noticed is some changes in the way pitchers throw to Balentien after his powerful entrance into the Mariners' lineup (although his pupil insists there isn't much difference). Those inviting fastballs have been replaced by offspeed pitches. The book on Balentien has been opened. "Breaking balls are probably the toughest for young players, because they don't know how to lay off the ones that are balls," Pentland said. "They'll swing at pitches out of the strike zone, but he's not horrible at it. Just the change of speed probably creates more of a problem because they're slower pitches and he has a hard time waiting on them." But there are signs that that the 23-year-old is making strides. While his last homer came May 12 against the Rangers, he has recorded at least a hit or a walk in each of his past 15 games. And perhaps most impressively from a discipline standpoint, he has six walks in his past six games. "I've been working on my swing every day, trying to get my swing as perfect as I can to have success at this level," Balentien said. Pentland hasn't seen the real breakthrough yet for Balentien, but said their work in batting practice continues to improve. He also pointed out the obvious -- doing things in practice is one thing; incorporating those changes while standing in against a Major League pitcher is slightly different. "Some of the problems that he has in his swing, I think he's starting to understand what he needs to do to correct those," Pentland said. Aside from the time spent in the cage, Pentland has encouraged his young player to pick the brains of saavy veterans, telling him that the older players can clue him in on "little things," such as tips on opposing pitchers. For now, Balentien is content to work on his swing and let the results fall into place in due time as he enjoys life at the game's highest level. "No frustration at all ... I know that sooner I will have success," Balentien said. "So no frustration, no worries, no nothing."
Jesse Baumgartner is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.