Sunday, May 27, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Balfour biggest letdown in Rays' season

ST. PETERSBURG

No, Grant Balfour did not single-handedly kill the Rays' baseball season.

He just failed to save it.

That was bad enough.

Alas, too many things have gone wrong to pin this all on Balfour. There have been too many nights when the hitting turns off. There have been too many blown leads. There has not been enough power. There has not been enough speed. There has not been enough Evan Longoria. A lot of Rays have contributed to the underachievement.

Then there has been Balfour. And, man, does it feel as if his fingerprints are all over this mess. For a guy who was supposed to turn out the lights on the opposing batting order, Balfour has spent a season in the darkness.

Talk about a bad year. He has lost leads, he has lost control, and he has lost ownership of the Rays' closer position.

And, as it so happens, he has lost the crowd.

It was late Tuesday night, just after his latest meltdown, and the crowd was all over Balfour. He walked slowly from the mound, the way the go-ahead run had walked toward the plate in his latest scattershot effort, and another game was on its way to being lost. And so the crowd let Balfour have it. They heckled and booed him.

And Balfour?

He tipped his cap to them.

As gestures go, this one was ill-timed, a failed pitcher trying to have the last, sarcastic word over a crowd that had every right to expect more from him. All in all, Balfour flashed a lot more heat toward the fans than he did toward the Tigers. Which made it one more thing that has gone wrong for Balfour this year.

"That was to the crowd," Balfour said as he sat at his locker before Wednesday's game. "They were booing me, so I tipped my cap to them. I don't expect anyone … they can do whatever they want to do. I'm not going to their work and standing there and booing them at their desk and stuff. I don't care about them. It doesn't bother me.

"I tipped my cap to say, 'Go ahead. Do what you have to do. If that makes you feel good, go ahead and do it.' If that's the kind of person you are and that's what you have to do to make yourself happy, then go ahead and do it."

Surely, you tell Balfour, he can understand the frustration. After all, no other reliever in baseball has walked as many as Balfour's 38 this year. Balfour has never had a season in which he has lost five times (out of six decisions). His 5.48 ERA is far above what anyone would have expected.

"Yeah, you can understand disappointment," Balfour said. "Is that how you show disappointment? Or do you sit there and keep your mouth shut? I don't know. There are certain ways to show disappointment. There are certain people who throw stuff and do a lot of things, too. But is that the right thing? Are they disappointed in the player when Barry Bonds is doing steroids and that sort of thing? Throwing stuff? Does that mean it's right? Everyone has their own opinion. I'm not worried about it. Whatever, guys. It'll all come back to you."

There was a time these fans were prepared to love Balfour. He was supposed to be an upgrade, remember? Instead, that was the first misstep of the franchise this season, grabbing him to replace last year's closer, Fernando Rodney, who has 36 saves and a 2.28 ERA for the Mariners.

A good closer, however, does it almost every night. He dominates the best hitters in the league with guts and heat. And Balfour's season was all wrong.

There was the night in June against the White Sox, when Balfour gave up five runs in a 9-6 loss. There was the game against the Angels in May when Balfour gave up three earned runs in a third of an inning. There was the June game against Seattle when Balfour entered a scoreless tie and lost 5-0. There was the July game in which Balfour turned a 5-5 tie into an 8-5 deficit.

No lead seemed safe. No hitter seemed overmatched. No strike zone seemed wide enough to keep fans from pronouncing his name "Ball Four."

"I'm not making excuses," he said. "It's been a terrible year for me. Horrible. Don't get me wrong. I expect more out of myself, too. That's why it's frustrating. It's been a disaster year, and it hasn't helped the team at all. I probably pitched away from contact. I should have been more aggressive. I walked enough people for two seasons.

"That's fine. It'll make it all the sweeter for me when I come back and have a great year next year. Let people run their mouths now, and I'll come back and shut them up next year."

Will he? Egads, after this, will Balfour be back?

Yeah, probably. Rays manager Joe Maddon said that he plans to stick with Balfour for now. And the Rays are on the hook for $7 million next year.

Like it or not, there is probably another ninth inning or two with Balfour's name on it.

Brace yourself.

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