ST. PETERSBURG -- Call him a cooler for now, but Grant Balfour has all the trappings of becoming the future closer of the Rays.
In Game 1 of the Rays' American League Division Series with the White Sox, Balfour entered the game in the seventh inning and rekindled memories of another era, when relievers were called firemen and they were used accordingly.
Balfour took over for James Shields with one out and the bases loaded, and the reliever proceeded to strike out the two batters he faced to end the inning.
Rays fans are used to seeing Balfour extinguish opposing rallies. During the 2008 season, just nine of his 44 inherited runners scored against him.
"The thing about him is he can come in the game and get a strikeout," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
In many respects, having a pitcher that can effectively escape jams might be just as critical to a team's bullpen success as having a closer.
"Historically, you look at the middle part of the game and I don't think people have really paid enough attention to who is going to soak up those innings for you in a close moment," Maddon said. "... Guys this year have really taught me that lesson. It's something you've always thought about, but when you actually live it, you see how important that spot is. It's a middle closer."
Balfour has made no bones about wanting to be a closer, noting that is the goal of any relief pitcher. But cooling a hot situation will suffice for the time being.
"I get myself fired up when I come into a situation where I know the game is on the line," Balfour said. "You go out there when the game's on the line, you want to win a ballgame."
As for the highly publicized exchange of words Balfour had with Orlando Cabrera before striking out Cabrera to end the seventh inning in Game 1, Balfour said he hasn't been surprised by all the attention he has received.
"It's the playoffs so everything is going to get looked over 10 times more than the regular season," Balfour said. "I'm over it. It's a new day today. I don't feel like I did anything wrong. I guess there was a misunderstanding. At the time we didn't realize that. He was up there and I challenged him. I came out on top and I'm pretty happy to do what I did."
And if he faces Cabrera again?
"It's going to be the same thing," Balfour said. "I'll go right at him, just like I would anybody else. I hope I face him again. I want to face him again."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.