Balfour finds opportunity with Rays
Newly acquired Australia native off to solid start in bullpen
ST. PETERSBURG -- All you need to hear is the accent and you know Grant Balfour isn't from around these parts.
The Rays right-hander hails from Sydney, Australia, where baseball barely registers a blip on the nation's sports radar.
"Obviously, the games aren't near the size they are over here, or in the Latin countries," Balfour said. "Now they have a program up north, but when I was growing up, they really didn't have that program. I'd say that the game is definitely getting a lot bigger every year, but it's never gotten to the point where it's really taken off in Australia the way it could."
Cricket and rugby rule, according to Balfour.
"It's tough to battle against those," Balfour said. "Like you've got sports over here like football, hockey, basketball and baseball -- those are your four top sports -- and you've got things like lacrosse that kind of get overlooked, I would say. It's kind of like that."
While baseball lacks presence down under, the sport had enough of a presence for Balfour to fall in love with the national pastime of another country.
"I pretty much just stumbled across the game," Balfour said. "Walking around the park with my dad, I saw some kids playing, and they happened to be playing t-ball. I didn't even realize what it was, to be honest. From there, my dad actually started up a baseball club with another guy, and I just took it on from there."
Balfour primarily played catcher while growing up and said he actually had good instruction from qualified instructors to help his growth.
"I would take a little bit from each guy," Balfour said. "And I'd learn from other players or watching the game."
Balfour signed with the Twins as a non-drafted free agent in November 1997 and first pitched in the Major Leagues with the Twins in 2001. He didn't stick, spending the 2002 and '03 seasons at Triple-A with Edmonton and Rochester before getting called up late in 2003, when he made 17 appearances for Minnesota. The following season, he spent the entire season with the Twins, pitching to a 4.35 ERA in 36 appearances; then the bottom fell out.
On March 25, 2005, Balfour went on the disabled list with a sore right elbow. Rest didn't help, so almost two months later he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. In September of that same year, he underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum and torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Since then, Balfour has been in the recovery phase, getting signed by the Reds, then getting claimed by the Brewers before finally getting traded to the Rays on July 27 in a deal that sent right-hander Seth McClung to Milwaukee.
The Brewers were forced to part with Balfour, who was out of Minor League options, because they needed roster space at the time for another reliever, Scott Linebrink, whom they acquired in a trade with the Padres.
Prior to getting promoted to the Brewers this season, he appeared in 24 games for Triple-A Nashville, where he was 1-1 with five saves and a 1.69 ERA. Balfour also pitched in eight games for Double-A Huntsville and was 0-0 with two saves and a 2.38 ERA. All told, he has struck out 91 batters in 46 innings in 2007. At the time of the trade, Balfour was 0-2 with a 20.25 ERA in three relief appearances for the Brewers.
"He was a guy I was thinking about counting on for next year," said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "You look at other teams' bullpens, and that's the kind of arm that teams get and, all of a sudden, they find it. It clicks."
The Rays believe they have something in Balfour, who is 1-0 with a 2.12 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 17 innings since joining them.
"The scouting of Balfour was really good," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "When Andrew [Friedman, the Rays' vice president of baseball operations] picked him up, he told me about his strike-throwing and velocity and all that other kind of stuff -- his breaking ball. This guy just needs opportunity. He's been waiting for this moment. He's interesting, because I think as he gains arm strength [based on recovery from surgery], he could be very good."
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey likes Balfour's power arm and the fact Balfour brings an intangible to the bullpen.
"So far, I like his attitude -- [Dan] Wheeler, too," Hickey said. "All of a sudden with those two guys down there, we've got a little more of a strut, a little more of an attitude. I really like the fact he's trying to take advantage of an opportunity he hasn't had before. I like most his aggressiveness, the attitude."
Most of all, Balfour is part of the formula Maddon wants in the bullpen.
"He just gives us another option when we're even or ahead," Maddon said. "Right now I'm comfortable with [Scott] Dohmann, [Balfour], [Gary] Glover, [Al] Reyes and Wheeler. We've got five guys right now that we're comfortable with while we're even or ahead."
Balfour enjoyed being a part of a capable Twins bullpen and sees good things ahead for the Rays.
"It's kind of nice," Balfour said. "The bullpen has kind of turned it around."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.