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Rays' Balfour invites trouble and success

Reliever Grant Balfour, left, is congratulated by Game 1 starter James Shields in the dugout after Balfour’s eventful seventh inning.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Reliever Grant Balfour, left, is congratulated by Game 1 starter James Shields in the dugout after Balfour’s eventful seventh inning.

ST. PETERSBURG — It was nothing more than a simple disagreement between gentlemen.

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You might even call it a cordial coming to terms.

"My goodness, sir," White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera was heard to say. "For the love of daisies, throw me a strike."

"Listen here, my good man," Rays pitcher Grant Balfour replied. "There is no need for such language."

That's it. Nothing sinister or untoward about the whole episode.

Oh, I suppose, there is a slight possibility some of the color was lost in the retelling. For instance, it has been suggested Cabrera might have said "%#$@" and possibly "*%#@." And Balfour may have mentioned that Cabrera should "$#*@ &(5#@$*'#," as if that's even biologically possible.

The point is, competition has a way of bringing out the masculine side in some ballplayers. Or, in Balfour's case, perhaps the slightly-psychotic-but-still-a-great-guy side.

"Is he nuts?" outfielder Rocco Baldelli said, grinning. "Just because you talk to yourself doesn't necessarily mean you're nuts, does it?"

"Yeah, he's in his own world out there," reliever J.P. Howell said. "I've thought about acting like that when I get in a game. And then I think, 'Nah, I don't throw 96 mph. I'd get killed.' ''

B.J. Upton chose simplicity when asked to describe Balfour's demeanor on the mound.

"Animal," he said.

All of which explains how Balfour and Cabrera came to be shouting unprintables at each other in front of heaven and a national TV audience in Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Thursday. What it does not explain is how it has taken so long for Balfour to get involved in this kind of showdown.

The right-hander has two overwhelming characteristics that would seem to invite trouble. No. 1, he is highly emotional on the mound, prone to shouting and cursing at himself between pitches. No. 2, he has been one of baseball's most dominant relievers in 2008.

That second part has gone unnoticed by a lot of casual fans. Maybe it's because he was waived in spring training and spent the season's first few months in Triple A. And maybe it's because the Rays have used him mostly as a setup man, so he had only four saves in the regular season.

But chew on these numbers for a moment. Balfour averaged 12.65 strikeouts per nine innings (first in the majors for pitchers with 50 innings or more), held hitters to a .143 batting average (second in the majors) and had an ERA of 1.54 (fourth).

Just because he doesn't have the saves doesn't mean the Rays don't consider him closer material. They tend to use Balfour, 30, in the most precarious moments, which explains why he has more inherited runners than anyone on the staff, despite missing most of April and May. He is, in essence, a seventh-inning closer.

"That's exactly what he is," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "Today was a perfect example."

When Balfour went into Thursday's game, there was one out, the bases were loaded, and the Rays were clinging to a 6-3 lead. He struck out Jose Uribe on four fastballs before Cabrera came to the plate.

Balfour's first pitch was a fastball outside. Cabrera reacted by kicking dirt in Balfour's direction and shouting something unpleasant. Balfour came off the mound and yelled back as catcher Dioner Navarro stepped in front of Cabrera and umpire Joe West jogged to the mound.

Cabrera later said he misinterpreted Balfour's shouting and also insinuated he was trying to get in Balfour's head. It didn't work. Balfour struck him out on fastballs, all 94 mph or harder.

"He told me to throw it over the plate," Balfour said. "So the next three pitches, I threw it over the plate. And then I told him to go sit down."

Is that all he told Cabrera?

"I may have used another word or two."

White Sox first-base coach Omer Munoz — subbing for Harold Baines, who is recovering from an ulcer — added to the drama by hurling a few insults in Balfour's direction as he came off the field. That brought Rays bench coach Dave Martinez out of the dugout with a few unfriendly suggestions of his own.

It was all high entertainment, aside from being the game's most crucial moment and Balfour saving Tampa Bay's bacon. Again.

As for his hollering and cursing on the mound, Balfour says he is not about to stop. He has always been on the intense side, but he has been more demonstrative than ever this season. And he doesn't think it's a coincidence that he is pitching better than ever.

"This year I've had a little more fire in me. I guess maybe it comes from spring training when they sent me down. I was (ticked) off," Balfour said. "I just feel like it's part of my game now. And I'm going to stick to it."

The Rays would have it no other way.

As Cabrera might say, Balfour has become one nasty $%@#&*@.

Rays' Balfour invites trouble and success 10/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 4, 2008 1:23pm]
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