Spring training is the time baseball least resembles a meritocracy. Collin Balester allowed two earned runs and struck out 23 batters in his final 16 1/3 innings last season. This spring, he has allowed two earned runs in eight innings, having struck out eight and walked two. Less than one year after making the transition from starting, Balester is proving he can be an effective major league reliever.
And he has virtually no chance to make the team on opening day.
The Nationals’ already have to fit eight pitchers – Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez, Chad Gaudin, Brian Broderick, Todd Coffey and Doug Slaten – into seven relief spots. Balester has pitched as well as or better than most of them, but because of considerations such as options, he’s on the outside looking in.
“He has pitched well,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “He certainly has not pitched himself off the club, that’s for sure. Bally’s fighting a numbers game a little bit. But he’s making a case for himself.”
The reason Balester has pitched well, he believes, has been his ability to block all of that out. In previous spring trainings, as a starting pitcher, Balester typically struggled. He concerned himself with his roster status, and it sapped his focus and worsened his performance.
In past years, “I would have worried about that the whole time,” Balester said. “And it would have affected my game on the field. This year, I’m just not letting that affect anything. I’m not even worried about it. When you worry about that stuff, everything else kind of goes downhill. It’s tough at first, but this year, I’ve just kind of blocked it all out.
“I just worry about throwing good and making a tough decision for these guys. I feel like I can pitch up here, and I hope they see that. And then after that, it’s out of my control. I’ve just got to pitch the best I can and make it tough for them.”
Balester said he improved his attitude and “put myself around people that are more positive.” The difference may not help him make the first Nationals’ roster of the season. But it should help him pitch better if and when the Nationals send him to Class AAA Syracuse, and that should help him get back to where he feels he belongs.
FROM THE POST
This is the time of spring when reality sets in, Boz writes.
Nationals owner Mark Lerner addressed several topics in an interview yesterday.