Red Sox relievers Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes both got some work in out of the Boston bullpen in the team’s 9-4 loss to the Pirates at JetBlue Park on Sunday afternoon.
Ottavino, responsible for the top half of the sixth inning, allowed one unearned run on one hit and a throwing error.
Barnes, responsible for the top half of the ninth inning, struck out two and needed all of 15 pitches to work a perfect frame of relief.
Following Sunday’s showing, the 35-year-old Ottavino carries with him an ERA of 0.00 and a WHIP of 1.38 through his first four appearances and 4 1/3 innings of the spring.
The 30-year-old Barnes, meanwhile, has also yet to allow an earned run over his first four outings and 4 1/3 innings of work this spring, though he has dealt with less traffic on the base paths than Ottavino has.
Together, the pair of veteran right-handers represent the top two — and really the only two — candidates to open the 2021 season as Boston’s closer.
Despite the fact that Opening Day is now just a little over a week away, Red Sox manager Alex Cora is in no rush to name either of Ottavino or Barnes as his ninth-inning man to kick off the new campaign.
“There’s no rush on doing this,” Cora said Sunday afternoon. “They know it. Right now, they’re working on their craft. Otto pitched the ninth one day, Barnesy did today. Different preparation for both of them. But we’re comfortable with the way they’re throwing the ball, which is good. And whenever we make the decision, we will.”
Neither Barnes (15 career saves) nor Ottavino (19 career saves) have an extensive background in closing out major-league games, but both are open to embracing the role this year, which is understandable since they both can become free-agents this winter.
Both relievers are coming off relatively down years for their standards in 2020, but Cora highlighted on Sunday how impressed he’s been with Barnes at big-league camp thus far.
“Threw the ball well. Good fastball,” Cora said of the UCONN product. “This looks like his best fastball in the last few years. Last year, as you guys know, his velocity was down. He’s been working hard to clean his delivery — more direct to the plate. And he’s been able to do that throughout.”
Per Baseball Savant, Barnes averaged 95.5 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2020, more than a mile per hour less than what he was averaging with it in 2018 and 2019 (96.6 mph). He’s also working on incorporating a splitter — a pitch he threw less than 3% of the time he was on the mound last year — into his repertoire.
“Especially since 2018, when they talk about us, it’s fastballs up, breaking balls down,” said Cora when discussing Barnes’ splitter. “And to have a different look — not only for lefties, I think for righties, too — is a good pitch. He threw it a few times throughout the years. In ’19 he tried it. I don’t know if it was more of a changeup, but it’s something that he always talked about. He’s looking for ways to improve, and the fact that he’s been using it more in spring training is a good sign.”
Barnes attributed the uptick in velocity he’s been enjoying this spring to the fact that he only threw 32 innings of relief last year over the course of the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. He had averaged 66 innings of work per year from 2016 through 2019.
“It’s really when I started playing catch during the offseason this year,” Barnes told reporters earlier this month. “I got to a point where the ball was coming out good — a lot sooner — I felt like because I only threw 23 innings, which is only 33% of a normal year’s workload. So when you take that into account, my arm feels fantastic. It almost feels like I didn’t even pitch last year. So I’m really happy with that; really happy with where I’m at right now.”
(Picture of Matt Barnes: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)