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Inspired Balfour relishes ninth-inning role

Grant Balfour pumps his fist after striking out Jason Varitek, his third K of the ninth, to end the game.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Grant Balfour pumps his fist after striking out Jason Varitek, his third K of the ninth, to end the game.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays reliever Grant Balfour added another peak to his roller-coaster season Tuesday night.

The fiery right-hander, filling in for injured closer Troy Percival, shut the door on the Red Sox with 1-1/3 scoreless innings in securing his second save of the season. Balfour energized the crowd with his mid-90s fastball, striking out three in the ninth and pumping his fist after fanning Jason Varitek to seal the deal.

"Unbelievable," catcher Dioner Navarro said. "He just goes after hitters and I like it. He got me pumped up, too. I started throwing the ball harder to the first baseman and third baseman when we struck out somebody."

Balfour has improved his strike throwing since being one of the final cuts in spring training. Getting sent to Triple-A Durham fired him up, and he has put up video-gamelike numbers since: In combined stints with the Bulls and Rays, he's 10-for-10 in save opportunities with a 0.67 ERA. He has struck out 25 of 63 hitters (39.7 percent) in the bigs.

"I'll be honest, I love going out there in the ninth inning; I love that feeling tonight," Balfour, 30, said. "If (manager Joe Maddon) gives me that opportunity, I'll be more than willing to take it."

Balfour entered in a tough spot in the eighth, with two runners on and two out in a one-run game. But after walking Manny Ramirez, Balfour got Mike Lowell to ground out.

"He just steps in and closes the game down like he's been doing it for years," third baseman Evan Longoria said.

Balfour, recalled May 29, impressed Maddon in the mid-June series with the Cubs by getting animated as he walked into the dugout after getting some tough outs. Balfour says he likes "pitching pretty fiery," but he has stayed cool under pressure.

"When he came onto the mound (Tuesday) he was very calm, he was breathing good, I looked at him and I thought that this is going to be okay," Maddon said. "And he proceeded to just throw wall-to-wall 95s on basically every pitch, so I believe were seeing the beginning of good things in the future with this young man."

Inspired Balfour relishes ninth-inning role 07/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 6:17pm]
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