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Balfour's fire comes from down under

Balfour's fire is from down under

ST. PETERSBURG -- The guy who leads all Major League relievers with a .106 opponents' batting average isn't your average right-handed man.

On this particular Monday afternoon, Grant Balfour is tucked away in the front corner of the Rays clubhouse -- calling card in hand -- catching up on some long overdue phone conversations.

"I haven't called home in forever," he admits. "I felt bad."

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To his family, Balfour's communication is even later as it is already Tuesday morning in his native city of Sydney, Australia. Still, time zones and accents aside, Balfour insists the land down under isn't a completely different world.

"I know you probably think I'm a little bit different," he said. "But [Australia is] not that much different. It's pretty similar to the States."

But while most young boys grow up playing Little League and adorning their walls with posters of idolized All-Stars, Balfour's initial exposure was purely accidental.

"Pretty much my dad and I were walking around one day in a park and saw the game being played," he said. "It was T-ball actually."

Fast forward a few years and the 30-year-old Australian has a 1.30 ERA, having struck out a Major League-leading 38.9 percent of batters faced this season.

Perhaps the Rays should send that T-ball team a thank-you note.

There's no telling how crippling the injuries to closer Troy Percival -- who has been on the disabled list twice this season -- would have been had the Rays not had the hard-throwing Balfour to assume the role.

"He's got the makings, he's got the mentality, he's got the stuff," Percival said of Balfour as a closer.

I've talked to him about it. I've said, 'Look if you ever have questions, even if I go out and don't get the job done, talk to me about what needs to be done. Because you are going to do this job for a long time.'"

It didn't always look that way.

Balfour struggled with consistency last season, issuing 16 walks in 22 innings, and was one of the Rays final cuts in Spring Training. Out of options, the 30-year-old cleared the waivers -- meaning every team in the Majors passed Balfour over -- before landing in Triple-A. After 15 dominating outings for the Bulls, Balfour got a long-awaited promotion and the Rays found themselves with some series thunder from down under.

As of Sunday, Balfour's 12.98 strikeouts per nine innings pitched is tops in the League, and second in the Majors to the D-backs' Juan Cruz.

"Ridiculous," fellow reliever J.P. Howell said of Balfour. "When I get tired I look at him -- because he's still going. Going hard every day."

With Percival's return to the bullpen on July 20, Balfour's role has shifted to more of a middle reliever, although -- other than a peek at the scoreboard -- most fans would hardly know the difference.

Even those not overly adept at reading lips can recognize the profanity-laced tirades Balfour uses to get psyched up on the hill. The fiery right-hander has no qualms with calling himself "crazy" in regards to his mound demeanor and doesn't hesitate to infuse more pressure into the game's middle innings.

"I think that's the way [Australians] are," he said. "We like to get fired up for sports. We are very competitive as a country."

A member of Australia's Olympic Team in 2000, Balfour talks at length about the experience of Sydney's Games and proudly boasts about Australia's superior athlete per capita ratio.

But when the topic shifts to Gary Sheffield's homer the previous day -- the first time an opponent has gone yard on Balfour this season -- it becomes clear that the right-hander's drive, while part Australian swagger, is mostly pure Balfour.

"I wanted to grab Sheffield as he was running around the bases," Balfour said of the Tigers' designated hitter. "I was fired up. I was staring at him all the way around ... and I was angry."

The fact that Sheffield's knock didn't come until Aug. 3 did little to extinguish the fire.

"Like the [bullpen] guys said to me, you kind of expect it's going to happen sooner or later," Balfour said. "Well, I wouldn't expect it to happen at all. Because I don't see myself giving up a home run to anyone."

Now that it has happened, Balfour will move on, and chances aren't the home run won't even be mentioned in his planned round of prepaid phone calls.

Because the real barometer for Balfour's future is an incoming call from his father, a good luck token he seemingly can't explain.

"It's just a thing I got stuck in my head," Balfour said. "I can't call him and say 'Hey, I pitched, I did this'. I wait for him to call me."

Thankfully, his dad -- who started a baseball club following that day in the park -- usually complies. And although Balfour attests his father is unaware of the emphasis his son places on his phone calls, no one can argue with the results.

"I've had to work hard to get back up here and really just mentally every day keep going," Balfour said. "There's a lot more to it than going out there and pitching. There's a daily routine and just sticking to what you know is going to work for you."

In his case, no calling card required.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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