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."
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