CHICAGO – Grant Balfour couldn't say no. Every time he peered to his catcher, he saw a single index finger. The fastball. Twenty-four straight pitches, all gas and gumption. A man with heat like Balfour's had best not deny his destiny.
He is who he is, and he does what he does, and Balfour never apologizes, and in that respect he, more than anyone, epitomizes the Tampa Bay Rays. Again they clawed out from the morass of their own history, one step closer to the World Series following a 6-2 victory against the Chicago White Sox on Monday night that sends them to an American League Championship Series showdown with the Boston Red Sox, the divisional foes with whom they brawled earlier this season.
The Rays grew up this year, exorcising the Devil from their nickname, fighting for their teammates and respect, and ending up here, in October, where a guy with a life similar to theirs finished the deed at U.S. Cellular Field.
Balfour is 30, never regarded as anything more than mediocre, a live fastball with little to match. The Rays cut him March 29. He whiled his time in Triple-A, rejoined the team in late May, proved unhittable and carried it into the postseason, where he has provided the Rays' most electric moments out of the bullpen, including the pair of scoreless innings Monday that began with the two dozen fastballs and ended with Ken Griffey Jr.'s series-clinching whiff on a 96-mph fastball.
"That's the team we are," Balfour said. "We're going to come at you. We're up for any challenge. We love it. We're a bunch of young guys. What do we know?"
Not much, and still enough. Most of them cannot appreciate just how bad this franchise has been. They were ever the tortoise, nine last-place finishes in 10 seasons, and to so quickly turn hare – to erase such a pervasive culture of losing in such a short time – necessitated an ignorance, if not downright distancing, from the past.
"We've been at the bottom of the barrel for so long," said center fielder B.J. Upton, whose two solo home runs catalyzed the Rays' offense. "And I think there was a point in time where people didn't even know who we were."
Now, no one doesn't. With the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs conquered, the Rays carry the best record into the championship series. It's an ode, general manager Andrew Friedman said, to the process of stockpiling young talent, putting it in manager Joe Maddon's petri dish and allowing it to grow. And yet to win in the postseason, especially a five-game series, takes something entirely different, a knack for playing well at the right time, a gusto in the Rays' veins.
"This team is built for October," assistant pitching coach Brian Anderson said. "Even within this series, you could see that whatever move you make, our countermove is better. There are just too many weapons."
Starting, as most playoff successes do, with their pitching. Among James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and the Game 4 starter, Andy Sonnanstine, the Rays have a changeup expert, a power left-hander, a power right-hander and a finesse righty. An opponent has no time to key on one style.
In the bullpen, left-hander J.P. Howell strikes out more than a batter an inning despite a fastball that can't crack 90 mph. Sidearmer Chad Bradford is the softest-throwing non-knuckleball pitcher in baseball, and Chicago couldn't touch him. And Balfour. Well, he opened eyes – or, better, ears – when, in Game 1, he started cursing loudly on the mound following a strikeout. The next hitter, Chicago shortstop Orlando Cabrera, took offense and kicked dirt at Balfour, not aware that the pitcher thrives off four-letter motivation.
"He's the Incredible Hulk," Anderson said. "He can be quiet and mild-mannered back here, and you piss him off and he's got the ripped-up jean shorts and his skin turns green and he's got red eyes. He's insane. I tell him all the time I don't know who he is out there."
Nor does Anderson care, frankly. So long as the bullpen pitches as it has, and the Rays' fielders – which got to 71 percent of balls in play, higher than any other team this season – continue to pick it, and Upton and Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña and Carl Crawford carry the offense, Tampa Bay might just be the favorite going forward.
To think, it's been less than seven months since the Rays established themselves as a team to watch, albeit for unsavory reasons. On March 9, Rays minor leaguer Elliot Johnson barreled into New York Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli and broke his wrist. Yankees manager Joe Girardi complained. Maddon called it good, hard baseball. Four days later, a Yankees pitcher hit Longoria, then Shelley Duncan slid into second base spike-high toward Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura, triggering a brawl that flared when Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes waylaid Duncan.
"We used to fear them," Howell said. "Now, we trust in ourselves. We've learned. And here we are."
Soaked. Very soaked. Gomes played party master Monday, as he did when the Rays clinched. He sprayed champagne, showered beer, pulled out a bottle of Patron Silver, poured shots for everyone.
The Rays were in the ALCS. The Rays were … in the ALCS?
"I've seen the lows," Kazmir said. "I've seen the lowest of lows. And I'll tell you, what we're doing now – it's worth the wait."
Balfour lingered on the periphery, the Bruce Banner side of him shining through. He's Australian, reserved, happy to nip at his beer, hug his teammates and revel in his series. Howell had pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings, Bradford three more scoreless, and it was Balfour – dumped on the scrap heap, available to any other team, passed up by all – who left perhaps the best impression.
"He's not tricking anybody," Friedman said. "They know what's coming."
And they still have no idea what to do.