PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Grant Balfour left the Rays a setup man. He now returns as the team's closer.
Such is the life of relief pitchers, a unique breed that seem to get better after acquiring a little wear on their tires.
Balfour, 36, pitched for the Rays from 2007-10, posting a 14-7 record and eight saves with a 3.33 ERA in 203 appearances. During that tenure he met his wife, Angie, and the couple set up house in Clearwater, with their two daughters, Raegan and Rielyn.
Balfour then spent the next three seasons with Oakland and went 62-for-67 in save opportunities in his two seasons as the team's closer. Contained within Balfour's run as the A's closer was a streak of 44 consecutive saves, a franchise record and the sixth-longest save streak in Major League history.
Balfour, obviously, has adapted well to being a closer, a role that brings different duties and rewards, particularly financially. He made $2.05 million in his final year with the Rays, and he re-signed with the team for $12 million over two years. But with the enhanced financial package comes responsibility.
"You're the backbone, the last man standing," Balfour said. "A lot of games are going to be won or lost because of you. I guess you can say it's a high-pressure situation. It's a high-pressure job. It's not one of those things where you come out and you're pitching five runs down, and if you give up one or two, it's a matter of maybe winning or losing that day. And that's what comes with the territory. At the end of the day, I just look at it as this is my job, that's my role, and these are my three outs to get."
Balfour always aspired to be a closer for reasons other than those of a financial ilk.
"It's just being in that situation," Balfour said. "The feeling is unbelievable to be out there to finish the ballgame. I've always wanted to do it. I would have liked to have done it when I was [with the Rays before]. Now, after being given the opportunity to do it, it's something that's worked out well, and I want to continue to keep it that way."
Oakland fans embraced Balfour and his "Aussie Rage" -- a budding anger that begins the second he leaves the bullpen. By the time he reaches the mound, he's frothing with an emotion he uses to fuel each pitch. Balfour can smile today about the origin of the rage, but he wasn't pleased at the events leading up to its origin in the spring of 2008.
Balfour had pitched well that camp and thought he'd earned a spot on the 25-man roster. The team thought otherwise, designating Balfour for assignment while opting to go with right-hander Scott Dohmann. All of the other Major League teams had an opportunity to pick up Balfour, but doing so at that juncture would have been difficult, given the fact most rosters were set at that point. Balfour ended up at Triple-A Durham, where he boiled over, channeling that emotion into a motivational tool.
"I left with a bitter [feeling]," Balfour said. "I took it out on some Triple-A hitters. Went down there and gave up one run. Got fired up."
Balfour went 1-0 with a 0.38 ERA in 15 appearances with the Bulls, striking out 39 and walking just 10 in 23 2/3 innings. That dominance prompted the Rays to bring him back on May 30, enabling him to become a major piece of the bullpen, posting a 6-2 mark with a 1.54 ERA in 51 appearances. Dohmann became the odd man out after going 2-0 with a 6.14 ERA in 12 appearances, never again to play in the Major Leagues.
After his first year in Oakland, Balfour got a chance to become the team's closer when the A's traded Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox, and he seized the opportunity.
"I definitely love the high-pressure situations," Balfour said. "I love the hype and the loudness. The crowd just getting into it. That kind of role, I feel like fits me."
While Balfour clearly enjoys the highs of his job, he acknowledged how the lows can put his emotions at the opposite swing of the pendulum.
"That's the thing about it, you go out there you take a loss, you take a blown save, you take it hard," Balfour said. "They can be big games that matter a lot. So a big part of the job is learning how to get over it -- 'Hey, I'm out there giving it everything I have and it just didn't work out today.' And it happens sometimes.
"You're trying to be perfect, but it's not always going to work out like that. You just have to kind of accept it. Joe [Maddon] has the rule here -- 30 minutes, and let it go and come back the next day. Some losses are a little harder than others depending on how it happened, but at the end of the day, you have to be ready to go the next day and win that ballgame. Don't let something like that snowball. It's a fine line."
Balfour has evolved as a pitcher since leaving Tampa Bay, more so than just transitioning into the closer's role.
Maddon noticed changes in Balfour the past three years.
"The big thing I've seen is his ability to use the breaking ball and get more out of it," Maddon said. "With us, he only threw fastballs and not enough breaking balls. I saw better sliders, curveballs last year, and I saw him use that more liberally that's a big part of his success over the last couple of years."
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey echoed Maddon's opinion, adding: "He was not pitching at the end of a ballgame. He wasn't getting the 27th out, which is really a big deal. There's a big difference between closing out the seventh and eighth, and closing out the ninth with no safety net. He's obviously learned how to do that as good as anybody in the game the last two years."
When asked about those changes, Balfour said he always tries to pitch to his strengths, so he didn't want to change too much.
"But also, I do a lot of homework and try to do a lot of research on the teams I'm facing, and stuff like that, and just kind of go from there," Balfour said. "It's one of those things, sometimes, where you have to back off and slow things down a little bit, speed it up, keep them off balance and change, and play that game -- as opposed to coming hard, hard, hard all the time. I'll mix it up.
"It's not like I'm going to tell you I'm going to sit there and throw my breaking ball all the time, because I'm just going to come right at you. It depends on how I feel and who I'm facing."
Balfour thrived while pitching at the Oakland Coliseum, a park pitchers love due to the huge foul areas and deep fences. Now he'll return to Tropicana Field -- a more neutral ballpark, a fact he does not appear to be too concerned about.
"If you're making good pitches, you're going to put up good numbers," Balfour said. "If you're making mistakes, I think in any ballpark you can get hurt."
No matter how you cut it, Balfour's glad to be home.
"Exactly," Balfour said.