ST. PETERSBURG — Given the way the ninth inning unraveled Sunday for Grant Balfour and given his uneven performance this season and his high ERA, and given what Joe Maddon said earlier in his postgame presser about the difference between “noise” and “actuality” when evaluating a player's performance, the Rays manager was asked if Balfour would remain the closer.
And Maddon said, “He's our closer as of today.”
When asked if Balfour would be the closer the following day, Maddon said, “Even if I was going to change anything, I wouldn't tell you guys anyhow.”
Then Maddon explained that despite allowing all of the runs in the Rays' 5-0 loss to the Mariners after striking out the first two batters in the ninth and getting ahead 0-2 on the light-hitting Brad Miller, Balfour wasn't solely to blame.
“I'm not putting this on Balfour right now. We didn't score any runs,” Maddon said. “They pitched really well, but I'm not going to lay this all on Grant. We, as a group, have to do a whole lot better. Obviously it stands out that he was one pitch away from making it zero-zero into the ninth. I totally get that. But we faced some really good pitching the last two days, give them credit. … I'm not just going to lay this at Grant's doorstep the fact that we lost.”
Balfour took the blame.
“My head's right. My mind's right. Everything felt great,” Balfour said. “I don't know. I think I upset the baseball gods or did something, I think. I've never given up five runs in my career in an inning and I've done it twice this year. I guess you got to tip you're cap to them.”
It was an American League-high eighth shutout loss for the Rays, who have lost 12 of 13 and are 16 games under .500. They tied the club record for strikeouts in a game with 17 — 15 against Seattle starter Felix Hernandez, who set a career-high K's.
The Rays managed just four hits and were hitless in six-at-bats with runners in scoring position.
And despite all that, they had a chance to win, thanks to 61⁄3 shutout innings from Chris Archer and a shutdown job by Jake McGee and Joel Peralta.
Then Miller hit an 81-mph curveball from Balfour into the right-field corner. Balfour said he pitched around Willie Bloomquist when he walked the No. 9 hitter.
“I am not a second-guesser, but game-planning wise, that is one pitch in that area that Miller can do something with,” Maddon said.
Balfour allowed a run-scoring single to Endy Chavez on a slow grounder past Yunel Escobar, a two-run triple to James Jones over the head of Kevin Kiermaier in right field, walked Robinson Cano and allowed a two-run single to Kyle Seager.
“It happened quick. It goes like that sometimes,” Rays first baseman James Loney said. “They're battling over there. It doesn't matter until you get the third out.”
All four hits came with two strikes.
Making matters worse was Balfour needed only 10 pitches — nine strikes — to strike out the first two batters and get ahead 0-2 on Miller. Balfour said the curveball got too much of the plate.
“If I bounce that, strike three,” Balfour said. “That's the disappointing part. A couple of inches away from snapping off a curveball and striking out the side and you aren't asking me a single question.”
It was the second time this season Balfour allowed five runs. His ERA is 6.46.
In Balfour's defense, he hasn't been used much to close games. His last save opportunity was May 25. It's hard for a closer to stay consistent when used that sporadically.
“I felt like I was 0-2 on everyone and just didn't put them away with the third pitch. Too much plate with the breaking ball on the third pitch and they hit the ball. It turned out right for them,” Balfour said. “When it's going wrong, it's going wrong. I tip my cap to the game sometimes. You got to have a little luck in this game, too.”