Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Grant Balfour eager to fill Rays' opening at closer

PORT CHARLOTTE

The closer.

It's one of baseball's toughest jobs. You hang around for three, maybe four hours. You head to the bullpen. You sit. You stand. You sit back down. You wait. You watch.

Then suddenly, it's up to you.

You go in at the most intense part of the game: the ninth inning. Get three outs, you get a pat on the back. Give up the winning run, it's nice going, jerk, you are the reason your team lost the game.

It takes a special kind of pitcher with a special kind of makeup to handle that kind of pressure. Just ask new Rays closer Grant Balfour.

Actually, don't ask him.

"I really don't like talking about it, to be totally honest,'' Balfour said. "I don't like to think about it or analyze it. This is my job. This is my role.''

It didn't used to be. Balfour used to be a setup man. That's what he was when he pitched for the Rays from 2007 to 2010.

Back then, the Aussie did a decent job, but he was a bundle of nerves and a jumble of emotions on the field. He bounced around the mound, fidgeted with his necklace, paced all over. His language was always pretty bleepin' bad.

That was then.

After a three-year stint in Oakland, where he developed into an All-Star closer, Balfour is back.

He's different now. And, well, the same, too.

"He is calmer, at least off the field,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He has matured a bit. He's a lot more self-confident. He has a greater sense of belonging here. In the beginning, he was still trying to make his mark and become established. And he's done that. He does read differently when you speak to him now away from the field.''

And on the field?

"He's pretty much the same cat,'' Maddon said. "He's very intense, emotional.''

"Yep,'' Balfour agreed. "I still have the fire and the competitiveness. That's never going to change.''

But the real question is whether Balfour can do for the Rays what he did the past couple of seasons for the A's.

When Balfour left Tampa Bay in 2010, it wasn't a big deal. He was 32, and there was no reason to believe he would ever become a trusted closer. He seemed to have neither the stuff nor the mentality to nail down games.

And there's plenty of reason to doubt him now. Despite converting 62 of 67 save chances over the past two seasons — including 44 in a row (the sixth-longest streak in major-league history) at one point — Balfour isn't a kid anymore.

He's 36. He's coming off two of the three busiest seasons of his career. A terrible spring has done little to calm those concerns, though it should be noted that Balfour is notorious for having dead-arm springs and being just fine in the regular season.

Then there is the bizarre way he landed back in Tampa Bay. He was to be Baltimore's closer, but the Orioles backed out of a deal when he flunked their physical. Balfour said then, and swears now, that he is "100 percent'' healthy.

Still, there are doubts. If you're a Rays fan, you should be a little nervous until Balfour goes out and proves he is reliable. That's not so much a knock on Balfour but an acknowledgement of just how few closers can dominate year after year after year. The typical closer's life­span is so fragile.

Not that Balfour is worried.

"It comes from the experience of being calm under pressure,'' he said. "I can think back to my first year in the big leagues and the game just moving so quick on me. Whereas now, I can give up the leadoff double and I just tell myself, 'Whatever, just make pitches.' And before you know it, the guy is still standing on second, and no one has scored, and you're out of the inning.

"I know I can do the job because I have done it.''

Plus, why should we doubt the Rays at this point?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of their six-year streak of winning records — well, besides that they've done it while pinching pennies while the rest of the AL East has written fat checks — is how the Rays constantly have changed closers and continued to win.

"Is it really as significant to have this primary guy for several years, or can you break in someone new on an annual or semiannual basis?'' Maddon said. "From our perspective, not being able to afford that guy or not having many (closers) involved in the industry, we've done a really good job of identifying guys who, even in the short term, have done a really good job for us.''

The Rays have gone from Troy Percival to J.P. Howell to Rafael Soriano to Kyle Farnsworth to Fernando Rodney. For the most part, this musical-chair approach has worked.

Now they turn to Balfour.

And Balfour turned to the Rays. After the Orioles drama, Balfour walked away from better deals offered by other teams, including the Mets, to sign with Tampa Bay for $12 million over two years. Part of that was his familiarity with the Rays and the area. He still has a home in Clearwater with his wife and two daughters.

He likes it here. He likes the Rays. He's comfortable.

Balfour is just hoping to play his part in a Rays run to the World Series. Few things can sabotage that plan quite like a closer who doesn't do his job.

"Losing games late,'' Maddon said. "That's the toughest thing on the psyche of a ballclub.''

It will be up to Balfour to make sure that doesn't happen. That's a lot of pressure. Balfour promises he is ready for it.

He'd just rather not talk about it.

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