After struggling in 2014, Rays' Balfour starts 2015 with clean slate
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Last season has been crumpled. The previous summer has been shredded in his mind. The 2014 campaign is a faded memory that won't see the light of day, everything about those grueling months bound to stay buried within Grant Balfour as he tries to achieve redemption.
From the ballyhooed reintroduction in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform nearly 13 months ago to the boos and the boorish pitching, he's over it all.
Clean slate. Fresh conscience. New eyes.
"I move onto the next year, just like I don't talk about 2014, whether it's a good year or a bad year, I don't sit here and harp on, 'Hey, I had a great year then. I had a (bad) year then,'" Balfour said Friday at Tropicana Field. "It's 2015, and we're getting ready to go, and we're starting up, and that's why we're here."
Remember when things were easier for the seasoned reliever? Remember when he didn't face questions about his poor performance before his demotion from the closer role last June? Remember when he came off an All-Star season with the Oakland Athletics and signed that two-year, $12 million deal to return to Tampa Bay after a three-season hiatus, a sign that Balfour Rage was to become a staple of success in the ninth inning on Balfour's stage?
Life didn't work out as planned for the amped Aussie in the first chapter of his Rays Career 2.0, the skid stopping with a 2-6 record in 62 1/3 innings, a 4.91 ERA, 41 walks, 12 saves, 12 holds and those three blown saves.
He insists he has given the shovel treatment to it all, and he shared all the right words Friday: That baseball "is a lot about failure," that "I kind of like the fact that people doubt me sometimes," that "I don't think in this game you can expect anything" when asked if he anticipates being named the closer again.
"You've got to go out, and you've got to earn it," Balfour said.
"I'll keep my mouth shut and go do my business and just play it out and see what happens. Whatever role I'm in, I just want to do well at it."
Balfour has plenty of reasons to go about his business well, after his struggle last year became a parallel development to his team's 77-win letdown. Actually, he settled well late in 2014, during September, when he went 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA, one save and four holds in 9 1/3 innings.
But other numbers define him to most who watched the smoke billow above his head early: 6.10, 4.82 and 5.11, each his ERA totals from April through June, each a reminder of what he must avoid in his new beginning.
"I think he'd probably be the first to tell you that he's got a little chip on his shoulder from last year, and in some ways, that's a good thing," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "But let's not forget, this guy has been a very successful Major League reliever for a couple teams. ... I look at it as kind of a clean slate. We expect him to pick up from where he's at his best and really help us out a lot."
Anything is possible for Balfour in the months ahead, either success or more struggle, either redemption or more regression. The answer to which result awaits him likely lies in his pitch selection and whether he's more bull than mentally bruised on the mound.
Strangely, Balfour shied away from using his fastball as often as former manager Joe Maddon would have liked last season. FanGraphs charted that the veteran threw his fastball 59.4 percent of the time in 2014, a drop from his previous career-low total when he threw it 64.6 percent of the time in 2013 with the Athletics.
"I'm ready to take the ball Opening Day," Balfour cracked. "I'm ready to start. I'm challenging (Alex) Cobb."
Tackling challenges is vintage Balfour, and recent months have given him new perspective on how important showing fight can be. He will be inducted into the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame on Feb. 28 so his father, David, can attend the ceremony in Sydney despite a serious battle with pancreatic cancer.
Doctors gave David about a year to live in June 2012. But the former rugby player, now at age 62, has hung on while giving himself month-to-month goals of extending his life.
"He dropped me off at the airport, and I looked at him," Balfour said of a visit to see his father in Australia in December, "and I was like, 'This might be the last time I ever see my dad.' It was tough."
"Just be tough," Balfour said. "Never give up. Don't back down from a challenge."
Like father, like son.
The previous season is gone. Old disappointment is over. It's 2015, and Balfour is ready to start anew.