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Balfour brings the crazy to Oakland
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Bay Area has become a kingdom of crazy in the sports universe, and for once that rowdy relief pitcher with the black beard isn't at the center of it.

No, in fact, things have been quite tame on San Francisco's side of the bay since Brian Wilson went down with an elbow injury earlier this year.

The same can't be said of the bay's other half. In recent weeks, the once stoic Oakland Coliseum has transformed into an unrelenting Lollapalooza-styled crazyfest. And for that, we all have Grant Balfour to thank.

After trading Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox last offseason, the Oakland A's threw the kitchen sink at the closer's position, hoping that eventually, someone might stick. That someone was Balfour, who has converted each of his last 19 save opportunities dating back to May 5.

Since the All-Star break, few closers in baseball have been as productive as Balfour, who has played for four teams since beginning his major league career back in 2001. His 1.71 second-half ERA was second among American League closers behind only Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays (0.25) and his .131 batting average against was the best in the league.

Balfour was also second among AL closers in strikeouts during the second half. Only Kansas City's Greg Holland (47 K's) punched out more hitters than Balfour (40) did in 31 2/3 innings after the All-Star break.

The nine-year veteran had been especially hot leading up to the postseason. Before giving up a run in Oakland's 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the ALDS, Balfour hadn't given up a run in any of his last 10 outings, generating 16 strikeouts in that span.

The last time Balfour allowed a home run was on August 8 versus the Los Angeles Angels. Since then, opponents have gone homerless in Balfour's last 25 appearances.

Certainly, Balfour has provided us with plenty of fantasy contributions during his short stint as Oakland's closer, but his value to the organization goes much deeper than that.

The 34-year-old, who could probably best be described as one part Rick Vaughn and another part Happy Gilmore, has become a master at getting the Oakland crowd pumped up.

The ninth inning used to be just another inning in Oakland. Now it's an event.

Balfour's bizarre entrance makes Kevin Garnett's pre-game ritual of smashing his head into a basketball hoop look like perfectly normal human behavior.

The Australia native enters each game to the deafening heavy-metal ballad "One" by Metallica, which incites a sea of Oakland fans to begin bobbing their heads and waving their arms uncontrollably.

But that's just the beginning. As Balfour saunters towards the mound you can usually see the closer giving himself a pep talk. To clarify, this pep talk is really more of a pep scream with Balfour shouting so many profanities at himself you'd think he was reading from a Tarantino script.

Earmuffs, kids.

Balfour's non-stop energy doesn't go away when he reaches the mound, either. The pep talk continues throughout the ninth inning, as Balfour slaps his glove and bellows "Let's go!" after every out.

The strange antics combined with Balfour's mid-90s fastball and a much improved slider have made Balfour almost unbeatable at Oakland's home ballpark in 2012. In 41 appearances at The Coliseum, the righthander is 3-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 11 saves. Opponents are hitting a mere .136 against Balfour in 42 1/3 innings at home this season.

Balfour didn't emerge onto the fantasy radar until he took over as Oakland's closer halfway through the year, but even before that he had been putting up excellent numbers. Excluding 2009, when Balfour struggled to a 4.81 ERA in 73 appearances for Tampa Bay, he has an ERA of 2.23 over his last five seasons with 269 punchouts in 250 1/3 innings.

The fastball has and always will be the key to Balfour's success but this season he has made great strides to improve the rest of his repertoire. Balfour used the slider on 22.7 percent of his pitches this season, a career- high for the Oakland closer. He also upped his curve ball usage from 6.8 percent last season to 7.7 percent in 2012.

Most pitchers experience a drop in velocity when they get to Balfour's age, but clearly he's still bringing the heat. This season, Balfour's average fastball hit the plate at 92.8 mph, only a slight drop from 2009 when he was flinging it at 93.3 mph.

"The 2012 A's aren't Moneyball. They're Fight Club," radio host Jim Rome tweeted about a week ago.

I think I just found a great name for my fantasy team next season: "Project Mayhem." And while I'm at it, I'm making my first rule of fantasy to draft Grant Balfour.

Earmuffs!




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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