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Collin Balester's new role

BUFFALO -- When Collin Balester left the Syracuse Chiefs early last month and boarded a flight bound for Florida, his career with the Washington Nationals was down to its last dying breath. He was carrying an 11.65 ERA as a member of the Chiefs' starting rotation -- on the heels of a terrible spring -- and everyone, most of all Balester himself, knew he had reached a career crossroads. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't working, and if this next step - sending him to extending spring training in Viera to convert him to a reliever - didn't take, the logical next step was trading him. Or releasing him.

That was one reason Balester did not protest when the Nationals informed him of the move. The other reason? He had been thinking about the same role-switch for awhile, after seeing friends such as Tyler Clippard, his Nationals teammate, and Brad Hennessey, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, make the transition successfully, and talking to each extensively about it.

"As a starter, you don't want to become a reliever, because you feel like you got demoted," said Balester, who returned to the Chiefs last week in his new role as a reliever. "But I started thinking about it during the off-season, and after talking to those guys, I saw [the transition] helped them just to go in with a different mentality of just throwing strikes. I opened [the season] as starter and couldn't get it done. So when [the Nationals] made the change I was ready for it. I just said, 'I think this could be the best thing for me.'"

So far, the results have been promising. Balester, who turns 24 on Sunday, has made two relief appearances, facing a total of only four batters, but he has retired them all, with his fastball registering 94 mph on the radar gun. But what has truly stood out is Balester's approach. He has pitched aggressively - coming in and throwing strikes, instead of nibbling off the edges of the strike zone.

"It's night and day - a lot more purpose, a lot more confidence," said Chiefs Manager Trent Jewett. "He's only gotten four outs, so I don't want to make too much of it, but you can see the difference. I think [the bullpen role] allows him to focus on smaller things. It's a more tangible, more quickly gratifying role. It removes pace - pacing yourself, saving something for later - it removes all that."

It is only now revealing itself, but Balester, who made 22 starts for the Nationals in 2008 and 2009, may have been born to be a reliever. He has always had a resilient arm - as a starter, for example, he always played long-toss the day after a start, with a bullpen session the following day. "I feel like my biggest asset is being able to bounce back," he said.

But at his best, he also pitches, he said, with an "attack mentality" - or at least he did at one time. Part of this transition, for Balester, is trying to get back to that mentality.

"I think I started to stray away from that," he said, "and this move has helped me get back into it. As a starter, you're conserving something. It got to the point where I was forcing myself to get some adrenaline just to get pumped up for the game. I'm not saying I wasn't pumped up, but I was just kind of lost. Now, when they call down to bullpen, it's like, 'Hey, get ready.' It's just automatic."

Balester isn't ready to commit to the change forever, holding onto the possibility of going back to starting at some point. But he also understands where his career was headed a month ago, and the U-turn he is hoping to make.

"I know it's a cliché, and everyone says it, but if I can get up [to the majors] faster as a reliever and help the team in that way, I'm all for it," he said. "I feel like I could do either right now, but I don't care. I want to play at the big league level. I want to be able to show I can stay up there."

By Dave Sheinin  |  June 3, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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"He's only gotten four outs, so I don't want to make too much of it."

Me either.

A couple of other notable quotes in this post:

"..just throwing strikes."
"...coming in and throwing strikes..."


Posted by: ihatewalks | June 3, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Well, at least he didn't talk about his 'stache. ;-)

Seriously, if Balester can be effective and focused as a reliever, more power to him, and good luck to him in his transition.

(and good to "see" you, ihw)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 3, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Collin Balester is like the Nationals' version of Colt Brennan. A cult fan favorite thanks to an outlandish personality who has never done anything on the field to warrant all the attention he gets. Even has the same initials. The Post and everybody else should just forget about him until he does something noteworthy - which, at the rate he's going, should be somewhere around the Twelfth of Never.

Posted by: nunof1 | June 3, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

He came into Spring Training as a joke. His porn star moustache and his Twitter account seemed to matter more than trying to succeed as a big league pitcher.

My only thought is, can he take things serious enough and keep great concentration and a killer's attitude and focus like the best relievers seem to have.

Clip & Capps keep amazing focus and demeanor when in the game.

With Bally-ho, all that talent wasted is a real shame.

Posted by: dmacman88 | June 3, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Until the Nats get a real pitching coach, none of this matters. It's nibble, nibble, nibble, followed by change-ups and off-speed. They teach it that way. 100 losses every year does not seem to convince them. The only question now is how fast they ruin Strasburg. He'll be a change-up specialist by his third start. It's called dumb, folks. The Nats have a patent on it.

Posted by: lp_lodestar | June 3, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Twitter accts and the "Stache" is something Bally does for the fans not for self promotion. Bally is 23 (24 on Sunday) and the move to the pen has worked wonders.
He threw 10 innings in his Florida transition giving up 1 run,1BB and 5 hits with 6 k's.
At AAA, including todays game, he has logged 2-1/3rd innings with 2 hits , 0BB's, 1 run and 2 k's. I think he is getting his focus just right for a 23 year old that has been in the Nats system for 7 years. By the way he should be somewhere by the 12th of...July! Maybe DC? Which is Far from Never!

Posted by: Spinman | June 3, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

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