Balfour confident he can leave disappointing season behind, help Rays win in 2015



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PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida — The only way Grant Balfour knows how to leave one season behind and begin preparing for another is by having a short memory.

The veteran relief pitcher's return to the Tampa Bay Rays didn't go as well as expected in 2014, however he's confident he can regain the consistency that made him one of the most effective closers in the American League over the previous two seasons.

"Whether it was a good year or bad year I don't sit and harp on it," Balfour said. "I don't talk about them anymore. I move on to the next year."

A mainstay in the bullpen that helped the Rays make an improbable run to the World Series in 2008, the 37-year-old right-hander spent three productive seasons with the Oakland Athletics before returning to Tampa Bay on a two-year, $12 million contract last winter.

But after converting 62 of 67 saves opportunities for the A's in 2012 and 2013, when he was an All-Star for the first time, Balfour didn't come close to replicating that success for the Rays.

He lost the closer's job in June and finished 2-6 with 12 saves (down from 38 in 2013) and a 4.91 ERA over 65 appearances — numbers that included his highest ERA since 2007 and career highs for losses (six) and walks (41), but would have been even more disappointing if not for a late-season turnaround that saw him hold opponents scoreless in 12 of his final 13 outings.

Balfour didn't allow a hit 11 times during the stretch.

"I actually left here in a good state of mind," the native of Australia said, nevertheless noting that he still has something to prove as he attempts to reclaim the closer's job this spring.

Jake McGee, 5-2 with 19 saves and a 1.89 ERA over 73 appearances, held the role at the end of last season. The left-hander will begin this year on the disabled list while recovering from elbow surgery, and rookie manager Kevin Cash hasn't ruled out the prospect of Balfour earning the job.

"I think he'd be the first to tell you he has a little chip on his shoulder from last year. And in some ways, that's a good thing," said Cash, who's taken over for former manager Joe Maddon, who opted out of the final year of his contract and signed with the Chicago Cubs.

"Grant's done this for a long time. ... He's going to bounce back. He's very motivated," Cash said. "He's a veteran who's been in that role. He's given up big hits and lost ball games, and he's bounced back."

Balfour, one of 28 Australians all-time who have played in the majors, is 30-23 with a career 3.46 ERA over parts of 11 seasons with the Rays, A's, Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers.

His accomplishments will be recognized Feb. 28, when he's inducted into the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame. He normally would have to wait until his playing days were finished, however the governing body for the sport in his homeland moved his selection up because Balfour's 62-year-old father, David, is ill.

In addition to ranking first in strikeouts (571) and saves (84) among Australians who've played in the big leagues, Grant is tied for first with Graeme Lloyd in wins and second in games played (528), 40 behind Lloyd, whose 10 years in the majors included stints with the Brewers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Expos, Marlins, Mets and Royals from 1993 to 2003.

David is a former rugby player who also was a long-time general manager for the Sydney Blue Sox of Australian Baseball League. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago.

"They brought it forward because my Dad is sick. ... He's done a lot for the game. I think it's just out of respect for him that they wanted to do that," Grant, who reported to spring training last weekend and will not be able to join his father for the induction gala, said.

Balfour has traveled to Australia twice since the end of last season, once as part of the MLB Ambassador Tour in December.

"It's tough. I wish I could be there and help him," Balfour said, recalling how difficult it was to say goodbye when his father dropped him off at the airport.

"I thought, 'this might be the last time I ever see my dad,'" he said.

Among the many lessons the reliever said he's learned from his father over the years is to "be tough, never give up" and never back away from a challenge.

Such as regaining the role he signed on for with the Rays.

"I kind of like the fact that people doubt me sometimes," Balfour said. "I'll just keep my mouth shut and go about my business this year and see what happens."

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