The Red Sox have a Matt Barnes problem, and there's no obvious solution.
Closer may not seem like a priority in the midst of a long losing streak, when there are relatively few leads to protect. But for the Red Sox to make a legitimate playoff push, they'll need to sort out the ninth inning, where Barnes once again let them down on Monday.
The Red Sox are just 8-12 in August, and Barnes has factored into four of the losses, including a brutal four-day stretch when he allowed a walkoff homer to the Blue Jays, a go-ahead homer to the Blue Jays, and a four-run ninth to the Rays.
His struggles continued on Monday when he failed to protect a 3-1 lead vs. the Rangers, allowing weak singles to a pair of sub-.200 hitters before Andy Ibanez rocketed a ground-rule double into the right field bullpen. The Red Sox ended up winning on Travis Shaw's walk-off grand slam in the 11th, but it hardly changed the disastrous turn Barnes' All-Star season has taken at the absolute worst time.
The question is, what can the Red Sox do about it? Manager Alex Cora didn't sound like a man with immediate answers on Monday night.
"We'll talk about it," he said. 'We'll see where we're at. Obviously there were two groundballs that we put a glove on them, and we didn't turn them into outs, but still, we'll keep looking at it, see where we're at, and go from there."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and understandably so. Since recording his 24th save with a perfect ninth on Aug. 4 vs. the Tigers, Barnes has imploded. In six appearances since Aug. 7, Barnes owns a 15.75 ERA. He has allowed six hits and two homers in four innings while taking three losses, his ERA ballooning from 2.25 to 3.72.
Most disconcerting is the loss of the new Barnes and the return of the old Barnes. In April, he spoke enthusiastically of how he had abandoned two traditional hallmarks of his approach -- working slowly and nibbling -- in favor of an increased tempo and a focus on attacking the strike zone.
He opened eyes by throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of the first 20 batters he faced this season. An aggressive Barnes was better than the one who admitted hoping he could throw three strikes before four balls.
But this month, Barnes's pace has slowed considerably, and he has resumed nibbling. Since his struggles began in earnest against the Blue Jays on Aug. 7, Barnes has thrown just 16 of 26 first-pitch strikes, and a couple of those were hit a mile. Marcus Semien launched one for a walk-off homer, and Vladimir Guerrero sent another 409 feet to dead center, where Kiké Hernández robbed him of extra bases by leaping against the fence.
It's not just that Barnes is nibbling. When hitters connect, they're doing more damage, too. He has allowed six balls with exit velocities of over 100 mph this month, topped only by the seven he permitted in April while facing 50 batters instead of August's 29.
If Cora wants to make a change in the ninth, even a temporary one that allows Barnes to catch his breath, he doesn't exactly boast plentiful options.
Setup man Adam Ottavino has walked five in 7.1 innings this month, lefty Josh Taylor has been abysmal, fellow lefty Darwinzon Hernandez is injured, righty Hirokazu Sawamura has battled some arm soreness, and Monday's victor, right-hander Garrett Whitlock, remains on a twice-a-week schedule.
None are perfect fits for the ninth inning, and even if one does move, it creates a hole elsewhere. It feels like it's Barnes or bust, and he needs to figure it out.