Late-bloomer Balfour right on time at All-Star Game
Oakland's veteran reliever works scoreless inning in Midsummer Classic debut
NEW YORK -- His assignment was different from what is it when he wears the green of the A's. The game was approaching the bottom of the sixth inning, and Grant Balfour was throwing in the visiting bullpen, very much warming to the task and the opportunity to pitch in the All-Star Game.
He had been a late replacement on the American League roster for teammate Bartolo Colon. He had flown here from Oakland overnight Sunday. And periods of sleep with a toddler and an infant in a hotel room could be measured in minutes not hours. But this was the All-Star Game, and at age 35, Balfour isn't likely to participate in many others.
But now he has an All-Star resume, modest as it might be. He pitched the sixth, protecting the 2-0 lead he inherited from Matt Moore. He walked his first batter, Mike Cuddyer, but then retired Bryce Harper, Matt Carpenter and Andrew McCutchen without incident. The A's closer could kick off his shoes and wait to watch the evening's more entertaining moments, those that Mariano Rivera spent on the mound.
He had looked forward to sharing a bullpen with the Great Mariano. "It'll be surreal," he said Monday afternoon. Balfour has been the A's last line of defense for about a year now. He has the last word. But Mo Rivera has been the "amen" for 638 Yankees victories.
Balfour had no problem deferring to the greatest closer ever.
His four-batter experience was quite enjoyable. Once the property of the Twins, he had Joe Mauer as his catcher Tuesday night. "It was fun," Mauer said. "It was a weird first hitter with Michael Cuddyer hitting because we were all teammates. So it was just ironic. But it was great to see Grant. You can definitely see he's evolved as a great pitcher. He was good when I caught him, but he's an All-Star now and you can see why."
Now he is the late Grant Balfour, alive and well and living -- for a two nights anyway -- in New York City. He routinely enters baseball games late -- in the ninth inning or thereafter. He earned the job as closer for the A's relatively late in his career. He learned late he would represent the A's at the All-Star Game, and he arrived late -- or early, depending on perspective -- for the second day of the festivities.
And, all that aside, he characterizes himself as -- what else? -- "a late bloomer." Any questions?
You'd never ask him to start, lead off or speak first. He's unfamiliar with appetizers and cocktail hours. He's a "last call" kind of guy (alcohol not included). He prefers brunch to breakfast and lunch to brunch. "In the beginning" is not in his lexicon. He knows only surnames, reads the index first and believes the last four digits of his credit card are the only four digits. His last name ought to be Zimmer, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Zisk, Zito, Zobrist or Zuverink. And his favored piece of punctuation is a period. Period.
And truth be told: he was born on the 364th day of a non-Leap Year. Honest Australian.
That Balfour can be found in the bullpen of the first-place team in the American League West is a mostly meaningless inconsistency. Not everyone can be last -- or even late -- all the time.
That he could be found at Citi Field in Queens on Tuesday evening is mostly meaningful circumstance for the lone A's representative in this summer break extravaganza. He didn't come by it easily, which is consistent with many of his ventures in the game. He had to wait for Colon, the A's original All-Star rep, to throw a pitch Sunday. The pitch was thrown, so was the switch to the veteran right-handed reliever
Understand that the man who Balfour replaced on the AL roster is the least likely All-Star, selected because of his 12-3 record, 2.70 ERA and recycled velocity and despite his 40 years, 265 pounds and the fact that he was an All-Star in 1998 and 2005.
But the vacancy developed. "I'm glad it did. Every year, I set my goals," Balfour said. "They're never numbers. It just say things like 'I want to be in the World Series.' 'I want to be an All-Star.' This year I can scratch that off my list. It's great to get the chance. I'm glad it worked.
"I've been an underdog in my career. I grew up an underdog," a reference to the mostly perfunctory scouting big league clubs do in Australia and that he has played for mostly small-market teams, the Twins, Rays and A's. "I've been under the radar a lot. So I'm like a sneak attack being here."
Not that his numbers were in any way lacking. He came to the All-Star break having produced a 1.63 ERA, 25 saves in 25 opportunities. He had 41 strikeouts and 40 baserunners in 38 2/3 innings. His 43 consecutive conversions of save opportunities over two seasons eclipsed the franchise record set by Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley.
But even Eck isn't Mo Rivera.