Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes made his first appearance of the spring for Boston as part of Sunday afternoon’s 5-4 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Braves in North Port.
Working in relief of Garrett Richards and Josh Winckowski in the bottom half of the fourth inning, the veteran right-hander looked sharp in his 2021 debut, as he retired the Braves’ 8-9-1 hitters — Jake Lamb, Cristian Pache, and Ronald Acuna Jr. — in order while needing just 12 pitches to do so.
Recording two strikeouts (one looking, one swinging) in the process of tossing a perfect frame of relief, Barnes worked in a healthy mix of curveballs and high-velocity fastballs on Sunday.
“I felt really comfortable out there,” the 30-year-old hurler said during his in-game media availability. “Felt like my mechanics were working well. Couple of high fastballs got away from me. But overall, the way the ball was coming out, the command of the fastball and the breaking ball, definitely happy.”
Barnes came into camp this spring as a potential closer candidate for Red Sox manager Alex Cora given the experience he gained in that role last year after Brandon Workman was traded to the Phillies.
On the 2020 campaign as a whole, the UCONN product posted a 4.30 ERA and .706 OPS against over 24 appearances out of the Boston bullpen spanning 23 innings of work.
Regardless of how he performs throughout the rest of spring training, Barnes feels as though his body of work in the majors would outweigh what he does this month when it comes to the team’s closer competition.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Barnes. “I don’t think I’m going to be judged on eight outings in spring training more than the last four or five years worth of work. “If there was something drastic and I was coming out throwing 88 (mph), that’s a topic for a different day. If I come out showing the stuff I’ve had my entire career, I don’t think eight or nine outings in spring training in which I’m building up looking to get ready for the season are going to define the decision and what they want to do.”
Alongside Barnes, another fellow New Englander in Adam Ottavino is also vying for the role as the Sox’ ninth-inning man, though he has yet to make his team debut.
Between the two relievers, Boston has a pair of intriguing arms who bring different skillsets to the table, and both figure to see the majority of their appearances this coming season come late in games regardless of who the closer is.
Barnes, who has accrued 15 career saves over the course of his seven-year big-league career with Boston, had said last week that he would like to close, but Cora does not seem ready to name who his closer will be to kick off the 2021 campaign just yet.
“There’s no frontrunners here,” Cora said Sunday afternoon. “Those guys are going to build up, be ready and we’ll make a decision toward the end of camp.”
Having said that, Cora was still impressed with how Barnes performed in his spring debut against Atlanta to close out the weekend.
“That was impressive,” the Sox skipper stated. “Velocity was up, made some adjustments, and it was a good one for Barnesy. You don’t have to worry too much about him. Physically, he’s always in shape. He’s a guy just like Adam. We’re going to take our time. They know what they need to be ready for the start of the season. But that was impressive. Velocity was up — I think it was a tick up from last year, which is a good sign.”
One reason as to why Barnes’ velocity may be up right now is simply because of how little he pitched last year on account of the 2020 season only being 60 games in length.
As previously mentioned, the former first-round draft pick only pitched 23 innings in 2020. From 2016-2019, he averaged 66 innings of work per season.
“It’s really when I started playing catch during the offseason this year,” Barnes recounted. “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.”
While Barnes may be pleased with where he is at currently, the flame-throwing righty still has plenty of work to do before Opening Day, so he is going to be sure to not get too ahead of himself between now and then.
“Obviously, you got to be conscious not to try and overdo it,” he said. “Sometimes you feel so great that you push and push, and I got to be conscious that we still have three weeks until the season. I don’t need to go out there and blow it out right now. I got to make sure that I pace myself and that I’m ready for April 1.”
Barnes, who turns 31 in June and will earn $4.5 million this season, is slated to become a free-agent for the first time in his career next winter. He has said that he is open to signing a contract extension to remain with the Red Sox.
(Picture of Matt Barnes: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)