CHICAGO – Grant Balfour sat at a table in one end of the visitors’ clubhouse late Friday night watching a video of his performance a half-hour earlier. The Tampa Bay Rays closer muttered as he watched the lead slip away until it disappeared in the smoke left from the fireworks that exploded over U.S. Cellular Field as the Chicago White Sox celebrated an improbable victory.
“It’s just frustrating,” Balfour said moments later. “A frustrating night for me. I’m better than that.”
Balfour was charged with protecting a two-run, ninth inning lead.
Instead, he walked three batters, loaded the bases twice, allowed one run to score on a fielder’s choice that was almost a game-saving double play than allowed a walk-off grand slam to rookie Jose Abreu that capped a five-run ninth and gave the White Sox a 9-6 victory.
All that after Evan Longoria’s two-run homer in the top of the inning gave the Rays a 6-4 lead.
“No excuses,” Balfour said. “Bad day.”
The Rays began a 10-game, three-city road trip Friday in a ballpark that sometimes haunts them.
The Cell is where the Rays, with Balfour on the mound, clinched their first-ever postseason series victory, where the Legend of Sam Fuld was born and where Dan Johnson hit the first of his two magical home runs during the magical 2011 season.
The park is also where Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game against the Rays, where Manny Ramirez’s failed drug test and subsequent retirement was announced in 2011 and where last season Jeremy Hellickson suffered his first ejection from a baseball game at any level.
“Seems like for some reason things happen here, good or bad,” bench coach Dave Martinez, who played for both Chicago teams as well as the expansion Devil Rays, said before the game.
The Rays saw both ends of that Friday.
Matt Joyce set a franchise record with five walks in a game as the team tied a record for walks in a nine-inning game with 11. In doing so, Joyce became the first American League player since Alex Rodriguez in 2000 to draw five walks in one game without any of them being intentional.
But, of those 11 walks, only two scored.
The Rays left 11 runners on base and would have left more or, perhaps, scored more had they not hit into three double plays.
“We have to cash in those opportunities when we have them, and then it makes it easier for the back end of the bullpen,” said Longoria, who stranded seven runners by himself.
A second inning double by Ben Zobrist kept the Rays season-long streak of at least one double a game alive and also drove in the final run of a four-run inning that saw the rally begin in earnest with two outs.
Chris Archer battled into the seventh inning to give the overworked bullpen some much needed rest. He allowed four runs on a season-high nine hits.
Jake McGee and Joel Peralta built the bridge to Balfour and Longoria gave him the lead.
Joyce scored on Longoria’s home run, marking the only time Joyce advanced past first base after any of his five walks.
Balfour got the first out when Alexi Ramirez flied out to center field on a fastball.
Balfour, though, didn’t throw his fastball enough during the inning.
“I probably got carried away with my breaking ball,” he said.
Rays manager Joe Maddon agreed.
“Reluctant is a good word,” Maddon said when asked if he felt Balfour was reluctant to throw his fastball. “He needs to go back to who he has been.”
Balfour then allowed a double to Alejandro De Aza before walking Tyler Flowers and pinch-hitter Paul Konerko.
Balfour cussed himself on the mound after walking Konerko to load the bases, and Konerko took exception. Several members of the White Sox took a step or two out of the dugout before the umpires stepped between Konerko and Balfour and took control of the situation.
“Paulie doesn’t understand Australian, I guess,” Maddon said.
Balfour then got Adam Eaton to hit a grounder to Zobrist at second base for what could have been a game-ending double play. But Zobrist said he had trouble seeing the ball take its final hop. That delayed him feeding the ball to Yunel Escobar in time for Escobar to step on second base and throw to first for the final out of the night.
“A normal speed guy we get him,” Zobrist said.
Eaton was able to beat the throw to first as the tying run scored.
Or did it?
Maddon, who still had a challenged, used it to see if maybe the Rays could get lucky. They could not.
Balfour issued his third walk of the inning to reload the bases. That brought Abreu to the plate. The Cuban rookie had tied the rookie record for home runs in the month of April set in 1982 by Kent Hrbek and tied in 1994 by Carlos Delgado and again in 2001 by Albert Pujols when he hit his eighth homer of the season in the third inning, a solo blast to center field off Archer.
Balfour challenged Abreu with a fastball and Abreu drove it into the seats in right field, setting off the fireworks as he passed Hrbek, Delgado and Pujols in the record books while he circled the bases.
“I thought he might be looking offspeed,” Balfour said. “I left it up for him to hit it out.”
It was Balfour’s first blown save this season in five tries.
“It happens, you know? It happens,” Longoria said. “Balfour’s been throwing the ball well for us.”
The loss also continued the frustrating start to the season for the Rays, who dropped their third straight game and fell into last place in the AL East with a 10-13 record.
“It’s just one of those games that if you permit it to fester, it will. If you don’t, it won’t,” Maddon said. “We had the right pitcher, the right spot in the batting order coming up. We just didn’t get it done.”