Another inconsistent outing from Grant Balfour a microcosm for Rays' season
JUN 08, 2014 7:42p ET
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Let's face it: It's hard to tell what you'll see when Grant Balfour takes the mound these days. The Tampa Bay Rays closer can either appear smooth or resemble a train that loses its wheels while chugging down a mountain. That's a tough way to go about life as a ninth-inning specialist, where a duty well done comes with no question marks.
High-wire acts are never supposed to be part of the job description.
Sunday against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field, he lived both ease and angst over the course of nine batters in the ninth of a then-scoreless, winnable game. He struck out Dustin Ackley and Cole Gillespie swinging in seven pitches. Then he had Brad Miller at two strikes after two.
Then, implosion: Miller smacked a triple to right field, Willie Bloomquist walked on five pitches, Endy Chavez poked an RBI single to left, James Jones cracked a two-RBI triple to right, Robinson Cano walked on five pitches and Kyle Seager hit a two-RBI double to right.
Goodnight. Sayonara. Another loss -- this time by a 5-0 score to drop the Rays to an unsightly 24-40, the worst record in baseball.
"I don't know what it is," Balfour said with a puzzled look. "Sometimes, I just feel like this year has just been one of those years where you get a bit lucky and sometimes you get a little unlucky, and you've just got to take it on the chin."
That's a fine way to capture this Rays season overall. It's unfair to place all the blame on Balfour for their myriad problems, of course. But the 2013 All-Star is a quality representation of where Tampa Bay stands now: The offseason buzz has died, only to reveal a forgettable slog through 64 games.
Back in January, Balfour was introduced in a surprise baseball-related announcement at the Tampa Museum of Art. He was thought to be a steal after his reported two-year, $15 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles fell through following a strange physical issue.
Turns out, not so much so far.
Sunday, Balfour allowed five earned runs for the second time in his 11-year career. The first instance came in a loss to the Chicago White Sox on April 25, when Jose Abreu smashed a walk-off grand slam into the Windy City breeze.
The bottom line: Balfour owns a cringe-worthy 6.46 ERA with two blown saves in 23 2/3 innings after his latest slip against Seattle.
"He's our closer as of today," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Even if I was going to change anything, I wouldn't tell you guys anyhow."
Who knows what will happen with Balfour?
The Rays have options should they seek a change at closer. Right-hander Joel Peralta (4.18 ERA), a veteran setup man, is one. So is left-hander Jake McGee (1.59 ERA), who received mention from Maddon on Friday night as the Rays' "one true All-Star."
The situation, whatever the outcome, has reached the point where Balfour has a history now. The Chicago and Seattle messes. The critical comments about booing fans. The 20 walks, which are tied for second among American League relievers (only the White Sox's Daniel Webb has more with 21).
"I'll wear it and be back tomorrow," Balfour said.
"I felt good today. And I'm not backing down. I gave up five runs today, but I felt really good out there, and I felt like my stuff was really good. I just didn't finish some of those breaking balls."
That's the rub. Balfour was one pitch away from avoiding the high-wire act, from avoiding the questions again. He said he threw a bad 0-2 breaking ball to Miller and "pitched around" Bloomquist. He "went right after" Chavez and thought he made a good 0-2, 92-mph throw that was poked to left.
Maddon was most concerned with the walk to Bloomquist. But no matter the chosen demarcation point, this day was another example of how thin the line can be between sanity and surreal collapse in a closer's life. They're baseball's version of placekickers. The margin for error is oh so small.
Balfour, to this point, has underwhelmed.
"I tip my cap to the game sometimes, you know?" he said. "Like I said, you've got to have a little luck in this game too."
Let's face it: Balfour needs more soon.