For all the lip service paid to so-called "mavericks" in this endless political season, baseball's playoffs have demonstrated that the nation contains at least one citizen who has truly earned that epithet, and that he resides in the Tampa Bay Rays' dugout. Two weeks ago in Sports Illustrated, Stephen Cannella counted the ways in which Rays manager Joe Maddon has rejected conventional baseball wisdom, by, say, walking a dangerous hitter with the bases loaded, employing a four-man outfield against certain sluggers and directing his switch-hitters to bat right-handed against certain righthanded pitchers. Over the course of the first six games of the Rays' inaugural postseason, Maddon has added to that maverick C.V. by consistently demonstrating a willingness not just to run the managerial book through the shredder, but to burn the strips, when it comes to the deployment of his bullpen.
By virtually any measure, the best relief pitcher that Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey have at their disposal is Grant Balfour, the hard-throwing Australian right-hander who has finally managed to harness his considerable gifts at the age of 30. Tampa Bay had cut Balfour during spring training, and he began the season with Triple-A Durham -- an indignity that inspired him, says Hickey. "He was a little bit ticked off about that," Hickey explains. "He went down there and performed. When I say performed, it was absolutely cartoonish down there. He pitched 23 2/3 innings, gave up 5 hits and struck out 39. You couldn't take CC Sabathia and put him back in A-ball and have him put up those numbers."
After the Rays recalled Balfour in late May, he continued to put up statistics that suggested Porky Pig ought to appear on the JumboTron whenever he was done with an outing. Over the course of 51 regular-season outings, and 58 1/3 innings, Balfour struck out 82 batters (his 12.65 strikeouts per nine innings was the best ratio among pitchers who threw more than 40 innings) and he compiled a 1.54 ERA. Most managers -- such as the Angels' Mike Scioscia, who during the regular season never once called on his finest reliever, Francisco Rodriguez, before the ninth inning -- would have immediately installed Balfour as a closer, and thought little of it, particularly when the man who officially held the role for the Rays, 38-year-old Troy Percival, was as inconsistent and injury-plagued as Percival was this season. Not Maddon.
Instead, Maddon decided to use Balfour as a "relief ace" -- a reliever who is to be called upon when his skills are most desperately needed, no matter the inning. The "relief ace" concept is not a new one. Bill James, the godfather of Sabermetrics, has long theorized that a team should use its best reliever in situations of the highest leverage. The Red Sox hired James as a senior advisor in November 2002, and the Sox exited the following spring training with a rare "closer-by-committee" that included such pitchers as Chad Fox, Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin, Ramiro Mendoza and Alan Embree. "I said it wouldn't last a month," says Hickey, "and I don't think it did." Indeed, the committee yielded five runs in the ninth inning of a 6-3 opening day loss against, coincidentally, the Rays at Tropicana Field, and by May, Brandon Lyon had become the Sox's regular closer. Lyon was eventually usurped in early July by the newly acquired Byung-Hyung Kim.
Still, the experiment undoubtedly drew the attention of Maddon, who was then the Angels' bench coach. The '03 Sox might not have had anyone on their roster who qualified as a "relief ace," but the '08 Rays do, and with Percival on the shelf so far this postseason, here are the situations in which Maddon had deployed Balfour so far in these playoffs, prior to Saturday night's Game 2 of the ALCS:
• Game 1, ALDS: Top of the 7th, bases loaded, one out, Rays up 6-3.• Game 2, ALDS: Top of the 6th, man on second, one out, Rays up 3-2.• Game 4, ALDS: Bottom of the 8th, none on, none out, Rays up 6-2.• Game 1, ALCS: Top of the 8th, men on second and third, one out, Rays down 2-0.
Balfour didn't allow a run in any of those high-leverage appearances, and didn't permit any of the runners he had inherited to score, either. By 1:35 a.m. on Sunday, when the ALCS's Game 2 finally ended, it was difficult to recall everything that had transpired over the previous 5 hours and 27 minutes -- one imagines that the early services at churches throughout New England and central Florida were sparsely attended in the morning -- but Maddon had again called upon Balfour when he was most desperately needed, after Sox hitters had battered starter Scott Kazmir and tied the game at 5-5 in the top of the fifth.
This time, as even the greatest of relievers sometimes do, Balfour failed to get the job done: he gave up a solo homer to Jason Bay, and then walked Jed Lowrie and Jason Varitek in succession. But then, despite the fact that the game was still not even half over, Maddon called upon his next best reliever, lefty J.P. Howell. Howell got Mark Kotsay to fly out to right, and struck out Coco Crisp. Then Maddon chose to insert his third best reliever, Dan Wheeler -- his supposed "closer" -- with two men on and none out in the top of the eighth and the Rays leading 8-7. Wheeler induced Kevin Youkilis to ground into a double play before uncorking a wild pitch that allowed Dustin Pedroia to score, but then held the Sox at bay until the top of the 11th (it was Wheeler's longest relief appearance since '04), when he was relieved by rookie David Price. After Fernando Perez scored on a shallow B.J. Upton sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning, the game belonged to Tampa Bay, and the series was tied.
Early Sunday morning, Maddon explained that he wasn't doing anything that he hadn't all along. "That might be the most critical part of the game, the fifth or six inning," Maddon said. "We're willing to utilize either one of those two guys in the middle of the game so that you actually have a chance to win it in the eighth and the ninth inning. We've done that not only in the postseason, we've done that during the season." Maddon admitted, though, that the playoffs made him more willing to use Balfour and his other top relievers even earlier than usual. That willingness might have been the reason why the Rays left for Boston early Sunday morning with the ALCS tied 1-1. Had he gone the conventional route and inserted a lesser long reliever like Edwin Jackson to follow Kazmir in the fifth, with the idea of saving Balfour and company for the late innings, the game's result might not have been nearly as favorable.