Matt Barnes getting back on track proving crucial to Red Sox resurgence

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 20: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 20, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 20: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 20, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox are starting to trust Matt Barnes again

Protecting late leads has been an ongoing problem for the Boston Red Sox this season. Their bullpen is thin on reliable arms who can handle the pressure of a tight game. While they have a few relievers who have been dominant in that role, rarely have they all been healthy at the same time and those who are available can’t pitch every day. Boston didn’t address their bullpen needs at the trade deadline but a revitalized Matt Barnes could be the upgrade they’ve been looking for.

Barnes tossed a clean inning on Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates to collect his third save of the season and his first since May. Say what you will about the “hodgepodge of nothingness” that the Pirates are masquerading as a major league lineup, but breezing through a ninth-inning save situation is an encouraging sign from a pitcher whose confidence has been shattered since his fall from grace in the second half of last season.

The result against a pitiful Pittsburgh lineup isn’t nearly as important as how he achieved it. Barnes was sharp on the mound, throwing seven of his ten pitches for strikes. He generated three swings-and-misses, including a pair of strikeouts where he sent the batter down swinging.

His velocity isn’t all the way back to his peak form but he averaged 94.9 mph with his four-seam fastball and topped out at 95.5 mph against the Pirates, per Baseball Savant. That’s a tick above his season average and much better than when he opened the season sitting between 93-95 mph.

The knuckle curve is his best put-away pitch and he used it to retire both of the hitters he struck out. He should have had Rodolfo Castro looking at a curve that clipped the bottom of the zone but Barnes didn’t get the call from the home plate umpire, evening the count at 2-2. Barnes responded with another curve in nearly the same spot that Castro chased for strike three.

Barnes is at his best when he attacks the strike zone with his fastball to get ahead in the count, enabling him to put hitters away with the curve. During his late-season collapse last year through his early season struggles this season, Barnes wasn’t trusting his stuff. He had a tendency to nibble around the corners and when his command was off, he often fell behind in the count. This led to an abundance of free passes and allowed opponents to sit on the pitch they were waiting for when they got in a hitter-friendly count.

This timid version of Barnes was a liability to the bullpen earlier this season, leading to a quick hook from the closer role that fueled him to an All-Star appearance last year. Barnes owned a brutal 7.94 ERA at the end of May, at which point the Red Sox placed him on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. The reality is that Barnes simply needed a break to get his head straight, tweak his mechanics and rebuild his fractured confidence.

Barnes has been revitalized since returning to the Red Sox bullpen this month. He’s allowed only one earned run over 5/13 innings for a sparkling 1.69 ERA. He’s issued only two walks and tallied six strikeouts. Barnes hasn’t allowed a run or a walk in three straight appearances.

It’s still a very small sample size of only six appearances but Barnes certainly appears to have regained some semblance of his previous form. Everything from his approach on the mound to the movement on his pitches resembles the All-Star closer from the first half of last season far more than the shell of himself that unraveled last summer.

We should pump the breaks on anointing Barnes as the closer or even suggesting that he’ll be worth the ill-fated extension that the Red Sox signed him to last year. His performance since returning to the active roster is slowly rebuilding the team’s trust in him though. He’s starting to prove that he can be an asset to this bullpen instead of a liability.

Tanner Houck is on the shelf without a clear timetable to return. Garrett Whitlock’s workload is still being handled carefully. John Schrieber is often called in to bail his teammates out of trouble before the ninth inning. That doesn’t leave the Red Sox with many reliable options to finish games.

A lack of depth has forced the Red Sox to lean on Barnes lately in spots that the last 12 months have taught us to be skeptical of trusting him in. As uncomfortable as it has been to see him take the ball in pivotal moments, Barnes has mostly come through since returning this month. Perhaps he found something during his two month hiatus on the injured list. He seems different from the pitcher who struggled through the early months of the season. If Barnes can maintain that level of performance down the stretch, he can provide an under-manned Red Sox bullpen with a desperately needed upgrade.

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