Red Sox

Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When spring training began, Matt Barnes was something of an afterthought.
     
The Red Sox had greatly improved their bullpen by obtaining Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, and with Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Steven Wright and lefties Robbie Ross Jr. and Tommy Layne in the picture, there seemed little room for Barnes.
     
But the knee injury that has slowed Eduardo Rodriguez has Wright in competition for a spot in the rotation, and that, in turn, may have put a bullpen job in play. And with a scare over Carson Smith's right forearm tightness Monday, the Sox could, potentially, have a big vacancy in the the bullpen.
     
Beyond the domino effect, however, is how well Barnes has pitched to insert himself back into the picture. In six games, he's unscored upon in 8 1/3 innings, during which he's allowed just five hits and a walk while striking out nine.
     
Manager John Farrell noted recently that Barnes has improved his curveball, making it tougher to sit on his fastball.
     
"We were in meetings earlier this spring,” said Barnes, "and that was kind of a point of emphasis, being able to have that curveball that was shorter and sharper and easier to command. That way, when I get into fastball counts, I can still command it and get back into the count with it.”
     
In the past, his curve had a bigger 12-6 break to it, making it difficult at times to keep it in the strike zone. But with a tighter break, he can be more consistent with it.
     
"It's just making sure than I throw it off the fastball and not try to do too much with it. Throwing it, and trusting the grip and making sure that I'm visually starting it in the right places.
     
”I think, coming off a fastball plane with a shorter break, it's harder to pick up. With the bigger (break), you kind of have a little hump at the top and if hitters see hump, they usually (lay off it). So as long as I can keep it on the fastball plane, I think it will be pretty good.”
     
If Wright is in the rotation to start the year, Barnes could conceivably fill that long relief role, offering the team the ability to go multiple innings. On Monday in Jupiter, Barnes had another outing in which he pitched multiple innings, getting accustomed to the "up-and-down'' experience of finishing an inning, then returning for more.
     
It marked the third time that he'd pitched multiple innings in a Grapefruit League appearance.
     
"We're getting there,” he said of building his stamina. "I'll probably go a couple of innings a couple of times more, is my assumption.”
     
As a former starter, Barnes was used to throwing 100 pitches every five days.
     
"Now, 35-40 pitches and you feel it a little bit the next day,” he said smiling. "But we're getting there. The arm feels good, the body feels good. We'll continue to build (arm strength) and go from there.”
     
Barnes is still making the transition mentally from starter to reliever. Once used to the five-day routine of a starter, he now must deal with a less predictable schedule, knowing he could pitch on any given day.
     
“When you first start relieving,” said the former University of Connecticut standout, "it's a completely different mentality than starting. The situations in the game, the hitter, score -- there's a lot of stuff you really have to take into consideration when you're coming in. Runners on base, things like that. It's more of an adjustment period, learning how to go about it.
     
"You have to really make sure you're executing your pitches, because more times than not, the game is on the line when you're coming in.”
     
Over the course of the 2015 season, Barnes spent five different stints with the Red Sox, with mixed results. It wasn't until the final three weeks of the season that he seemed to figure things out. In his final nine appearances, over 10 1/3 innings, he allowed just one run.
     
"I had a couple good outings here and there, but it was exactly what I wanted,” said Barnes. "Once I got back in September, it was almost like something clicked. I figured out how to use my stuff out of the bullpen. The first couple of (call-ups), I was trying to do too much. You kind of get out of the bullpen and you're like, ‘OK, I'm going to empty the tank now. I'm going to throw 100 mph every pitch.' But a 100 mph, down the middle of the plate, when it's not located, gets hit in the big leagues - plain and simple.”
     
The realization that high 90s velocity alone wasn’t enough to succeed in the major leagues was something of a rude awakening for Barnes.
     
"Absolutely,” he said. "You almost have to be more fine with your pitches out of the bullpen. Hitters want to be the guy, they want to be the guy who drives someone in, looking to swing early. You realize that locating at 93-94 mph is a lot better than 97 mph not located.
     
”It was realizing that, using my secondary pitches and not being someone who I'm not.”
     
Now, with a dialed-back but more precise fastball and the adjustment to his curveball, Barnes feels better prepared to succeed.