In the last ride of Grant Balfour, there were runners everywhere.
A deficit got out of hand. Gas was thrown on the fire. There was ugly all around. A game was lost.
You know, like usual.
One of the largest financial mistakes in Rays’ history came to an inglorious end Saturday night. Balfour, brought in as the team’s closer, was released after a miserable outing to the New York Yankees. He walked three. He gave up a grand slam. He turned a 4-0 deficit into a 9-0 loss.
Finally, the Rays decided that not even Balfour’s contract could save him.
That’s why he was here, you know. Balfour was awful a year ago, when he was brought in to replace Fernando Rodney as the team’s closer. It was a horrible decision. Rodney had 48 saves for the Mariners. Balfour struggled through a season in which he could not save, a season in which he lost the closer’s job, the front office’s trust and the fans’ affection.
But Balfour had $7 million coming this year, work or no work. So the Rays decided they would try to find work for him. Besides, Balfour was a sympathetic figure, with the death of his father back in Australia.
But it was obvious he was on thin ice. Balfour made five appearances, allowing a run in none of them. As spectacular as it was, this was Balfour’s first miserable outing, a 33-pitch going-out-of-business sale.
In other words, Balfour imploded, much as he did often last year. This time was the last time.
“It was a very difficult decision,’’ manager Kevin Cash said Sunday, “because of what he’s meant to the organization and the way he’s pitched in a lot of big games, big moments. But it was kind of out of need for our team going forward. We were getting a little short. We need innings, where we’re at with some injuries and situations like that. That was kind of the deciding factor.’’
Cash was being nice. Balfour was replaced on the roster by Brandon Gomes, another reliever. Clearly, if the Rays trusted Balfour, there were 7 million reasons to keep him. That’s a lot of money for a team on the Rays’ budget to eat.
Balfour had come in the 2014 season to be a turn-off-the-lights pitcher, replacing Rodney at the end of games. He had saved 38 games the previous year for the A’s, and his volatile presence was supposed to be a signature part of Rays’ games. But there were hints Balfour had lost velocity, and by trying to be too fine, lost control. He finished with a 4.91 era and a 1.44 whip.
After the game, Balfour admitted he did not have the same fastball as a couple of years ago. “The arm feels good,” he said. “But I threw and it’s 88 mph. I feel like it should be 92. I’ve been shying away from using it.”
In one signature moment late last season, Balfour came off the mound after blowing another save, and the fans let him have it. Sarcastically, Balfour tipped his hat to the crowd. He was still livid the next night.
“That was to the crowd,” Balfour said. “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.”
Cash, however, praised the way Balfour handled his release. No cap-tipping this time.
“The way Grant handled it, just kind of as expected, as a pro’s pro,’’ Cash said. “He was extremely appreciative, said some nice things, got to talk to all of his teammates and he was a big part of this clubhouse. I think it shocked some guys, but the way he handled it made everything better.’’
In all of baseball, the end comes quickly for a lot of relievers who are unable to adjust to the loss of speed.
Still, there are some cracks showing in the Rays’ blueprint in recent seasons. Designated hitter Pat Burrell was a waste of money, and Luke Scott didn’t work out. Nor did Balfour in his second stint with the team.
In the end, he walked away.
Just like a lot of hitters he faced.