The Rays overcame yet another bullpen failure to salvage a win in the third game of their series against the Oakland A’s this Thursday. Grant Balfour failed once again in the ninth inning, allowing the run that tied the game and blowing the save. You don’t have to be a baseball expert to know that a team whose closer has a 5.89 ERA is having bullpen problems.
Balfour’s performance over the last 30 days has been worse than his ERA suggests. He was perfect at the start of the season, garnering four saves over his first five games with an ERA of 0.00. Since April 20, his ERA is 7.11, with 4 saves, 2 blown saves and a loss. Balfour is 36 years old and saved 38 games for the Oakland Athletics last year. But, his recent struggles have led many fans to wonder if his age is finally catching up to him. By some measures he has, in fact, lost something off his stuff. His fastball velocity is in the 92-94 mph range, down from 94-96 a couple of years ago, and that could be part of the reason for his struggles.
Even with all the blown saves, there are some positives in Balfour’s performance. Opposing batters are only hitting .209 off him, so maybe his stuff hasn’t taken as much of a hit as we thought. Walks have been his main undoing; he’s pitched 18.1 innings and has struck out 15, but has walked 18 for an ugly 8.8 BB/9. By contrast, Jake McGee, who may get a chance to close if Balfour continues to falter, has struck out 21 batters in 21 innings but has only walked 6 for a 2.7 BB/9. Balfour is a veteran pitcher who’s had a lot of success over the years. If he can cut down on walks and get closer to his career 4.1 BB/9, he might yet have success.
This is one of the reasons Joe Maddon gets the big bucks to manage the Rays. Fans look at Balfour’s blown saves and high ERA and scream for someone else to close. However, 18 innings remains a very small sample size from which to judge. Maddon knows the effort Balfour is making, watches him work hard, and knows Balfour’s approach to the game. If Maddon believes Balfour still gives the Rays the best chance to win, Balfour will be out there. However, it won’t take many more poor performances before Maddon will be forced to try someone else. The Boston Red Sox series on Memorial Day weekend is crucial for Balfour and the Rays. If Grant Balfour saves a couple of these games he’s bought more time in the closer spot. But if he blows some saves, his time could as the Rays’ closer may be limited