With Troy Percival and his 19 saves headed for the disabled list, Balfour, the 30-year-old native of Sydney, Australia, picked up the slack, hopping into the fire to preserve a 3-1 Rays win over the Red Sox in front of a crowd of 31,112 at Tropicana Field.
The Rays moved to 51-32 on the season and pushed their lead over the Red Sox to 2 1/2 games in the American League East. Tampa Bay is now 32-13 at home and 28-6 at Tropicana Field since April 22. In addition, the Rays have now won 10 of their past 11 home series.
Balfour entered the game with two outs in the eighth inning with runners on first and second and the Rays clinging to a 2-1 lead. After walking Manny Ramirez to load the bases, the right-hander retired Mike Lowell on a groundout to shortstop to end the threat.
Dioner Navarro's RBI single in the eighth pushed the Rays' lead to 3-1 and served to incite the raucous home crowd. Tropicana Field sounded like some banana republic, with clanging cowbells echoing inside the building when Balfour took the mound in the ninth.
Using three 95-mph fastballs, Balfour quickly dispatched of Kevin Youkilis for the first out. Brandon Moss then swung and missed at strike three on another 95-mph Balfour heater for the second out. Alex Cora momentarily broke the spell with a double to left that brought the potential tying run to the plate in the form of Jason Varitek. But once again, Balfour looked dominating delivering a 95-mph fastball to retire the Red Sox's catcher swinging to end the game and earn his second save of the season.
"I like pitching [with a loud crowd]," Balfour said. "I'm pretty fiery. Just the way I am, I fire myself up. I'm talking to myself out there. That's how I like to be.
"You have to stay focused on what you're doing. You don't want to get too caught up in what you're doing. A couple of pitches I let it go a little bit. But I came back to where I needed to be and did pretty well."
Not only did the Rays get a victory, they might have found a closer for the interim while Percival is out.
"I do have a lot of faith in Grant," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's been throwing strikes. With his velocity and his angle, if this guys throws strikes, he's going to do what you saw tonight often. This guy can be dominant."
Balfour would like nothing better than to be the guy who finishes out the games for the Rays.
"I'll be honest, I love going out there in the ninth inning," Balfour said. "I loved going out there tonight. If [Maddon] gives me that opportunity, I'll be more than welcome to take it. Whatever helps the team win."
Matt Garza started for the Rays and continued to show the kind of stuff he used against the Marlins on Wednesday when he threw a complete-game one-hitter and faced just 28 hitters. On Tuesday night, he retired the first nine hitters he faced before Jacoby Ellsbury's swinging-bunt single turned into a Red Sox run.
Ellsbury's blinding speed down the first-base line forced a speedy throw from Navarro, and the Rays' catcher threw the ball into right field, allowing Ellsbury to reach third. One out later, J.D. Drew's sacrifice fly scored Ellsbury to tie the score at 1.
Garza did most of the work on the mound, but he received some help in the field, specifically from Evan Longoria at third base. With two outs in the seventh, Cora slapped a ball down the third-base line that Longoria dove to backhand. The Rays' third baseman got to his knees and threw a one-hopper that Carlos Pena fielded cleanly at first for the third out.
"That was a moment in the game where someone needed to make a play, and fortunately it was me," Longoria said. "That was a good play. That was one of my favorites."
Garza allowed just the one unearned run on five hits while striking out three in seven innings to move to 7-4 on the season.
"We did great tonight," Garza said. "We got the win. ... I was just trying to stay pitch-to-pitch. Don't try to do too much or be too fancy. I just go out there and do the best I can for as long as I can."
Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield matched Garza, continuing his track record of excellence at Tropicana Field, but ultimately his career record fell to 19-4 despite allowing just two runs in seven innings.
Carl Crawford scored on a wild pitch in the first inning to put Tampa Bay up, 1-0. The Rays scored their second run after Longoria hit a ball to second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who slipped, allowing Longoria to reach base safely with an infield hit. After going to second on a wild pitch, Longoria scored on Navarro's single, making it a 2-1 game.
"These guys aren't like they used to be," Wakefield said. "They're pretty good over there."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less