ST. PETERSBURG — Grant Balfour didn't really have any answers after his latest ninth-inning collapse, turning a scoreless game — with two outs, nobody on and two strikes on a .167 hitter — into a 5-0 mess of a loss Sunday.
But Rays manager Joe Maddon had a curious one when asked if they were going to stick with the struggling Balfour, and his 6.46 ERA, as their closer:
"He's our closer as of today," Maddon replied.
Was that to suggest a change, to Jake McGee or Juan Carlos Oviedo or someone else, was coming? Maddon — who always talks to players first about job shifts — said only, "Even if I was going to change anything, I wouldn't tell you guys anyhow."
Balfour's blowup topped the list of bad on a day when the Rays struck out a team-record-tying 17 times, losing for the 12th time in 13 games and dropping their majors-worst record to 24-40, a season-high 16 games under the .500 mark Maddon wants them to reach by next month.
And it ruined what had been an impressive pitchers duel led by the Rays' Chris Archer and Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who struck out a career-high 15 in seven innings.
"Better today than when he threw the perfect game in Seattle (in 2012)," Maddon said.
What made it all the more maddening was Balfour had looked sharp in striking out the first two Mariners, and was ahead of Brad Miller 0-and-2 when he made the first of several two-strike mistakes, leaving a breaking ball over too much of the plate that was rocketed past first baseman James Loney.
"I didn't make a good pitch," said Balfour, who was working with rookie catcher Ali Solis. Maddon agreed, saying from a game-planning standpoint it was the wrong pitch and wrong location.
But they had different takes on what happened next. Maddon said walking right-handed No. 9 hitter Willie Bloomquist (whom he didn't want Archer to face earlier) was "the big play" of the entire sequence. "That's the one that kind of gives them a little thing,'' he said.
But Balfour sounded like he didn't think so, saying he "pitched around Bloomquist a little bit right there.''
Either way, it wasn't good. And it got worse when lefty Endy Chavez lunged to swing at an 0-and-2 pitch and slapped it just by shortstop Yunel Escobar to score the first run. "I thought I made a good pitch, he just kind of stuck the bat out and got a ground ball single," Balfour said. "You just kind of shake your head because he just could have as easily hit it to shortstop."
The deficit grew quickly as rookie James Jones — on another 0-and-2 pitch — drove a ball over the head of rightfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was playing in as instructed, scored two runs. A walk to Robinson Cano and then a double by Kyle Seager — on a 1-and-2 pitch — made it 5-0.
Balfour said he felt great, had good stuff and was throwing with confidence, making the rapid turn of events even more frustrating as he wondered if "I upset the baseball gods or I did something" and this was just an "unlucky" year. He gave up five runs in an inning for the second time after never doing so previously in his 11 seasons.
"That's the disappointing part," Balfour said. "I'm a couple inches away from snapping off a curveball and striking out the side today and you're not going to ask me a single question. You're the best player in baseball because you struck out the side. Instead, I'm standing here because I gave up five. So I'll wear it and I'll be back tomorrow."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]bay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.