The way Matt Barnes hooted, hollered, and pumped his fist on the top step of the Red Sox dugout, you'd think he had spent the season setting up for Hansel Robles.
The moment said something about Barnes and his dedication to a Red Sox club that spent three months looking like a darkhorse World Series contender in no small part because of his back-end dominance.
Unfortunately, it said more about the current state of the Red Sox bullpen in general and Barnes in particular. The All-Star right-hander extended the most trying stretch of his career on Tuesday night in an 11-9 victory over the Twins that may temporarily spell the end of his tenure as Red Sox closer.
One night after blowing a 3-1 lead against the last-place Rangers, Barnes wasn't allowed to make an 11-8 advantage disappear against the AL Central cellar-dwellers. Summoned to start the ninth, he allowed a mammoth leadoff homer to Josh Donaldson before walking the next two batters.
Manager Alex Cora, who had already made one mound visit, found himself with little choice but to summon Robles, who stranded the tying runs on base by striking out two before inducing a soft liner to end it and earn the save that Barnes could not.
By that point, Barnes had screamed himself hoarse, the catharsis of Robles averting another devastating loss temporarily distracting him from his own profound run of failure.
"In a situation like that, I can be pissed at myself later," Barnes said. "I can be selfish and slam stuff and go back to my apartment and be pissed off and worry about all that nonsense later. The most important thing in that moment is me being a good teammate to Robles. He's coming in, he's trying to clean up my mess, trying to help us win a ballgame and close that down for us. My sole job there is to cheer him on."
He had another job just minutes earlier, but it once again did not go well. The homer to Donaldson pushed his August ERA to a ghastly 16.88. He has blown two saves and lost three games this month, and there's little doubt Tuesday night would've added another tally to each column if Cora hadn't deployed the hook.
Listening to Barnes address his struggles on a postgame Zoom harkened back to the days of Derek Lowe, another erstwhile Red Sox closer who could struggle with confidence issues. Barnes insisted that hitters were hammering good pitches, but at some point all you can do is nod politely while wondering if he's in denial.
While it's true that Donaldson smoked a 95 mph fastball above the letters over 420 feet to center, it's also true that that pitch might've been an inch higher or maybe 1 mph faster in April. Likewise, Barnes noted that he made good pitches the night before against the Rangers while loading the bases on a trio of seeing-eye hits before Andy Ibanez launched a ground-rule double to deep right field. But that ignores his inability to put away hitters batting between .172 and .249.
"I think frustrated is probably a bit of an understatement," Barnes said. "It's been a tough couple of weeks for me. I was dealing with some mechanical stuff with the ball leaking back over the middle of the zone. I feel like I've actually fixed that. I feel like the ball has been coming out pretty good and been pretty true. Baseball's a funny game, man. Between yesterday and today, I thought I made some really good pitches."
His pitches haven't been nearly good enough, which has put Cora and pitching coach Dave Bush in an unenviable position. They can stick with Barnes and hope he fixes his problems on the fly, or they can drop him into a setup role, decrease the pressure by a few millibars, and send dominoes scattering across the rest of the 'pen, where perhaps the inconsistent Robles suddenly takes his 99 mph fastball and spotty command into the ninth inning.
"We're concerned," Cora said. "Yeah, we are. Obviously we're not going to pick on the guy, but we have to make adjustments, whatever it is."
For his part, Barnes said he's willing to do whatever Cora and Bush want. That should come as no surprise after watching him empty his lungs in support of the man who might at least temporarily take his job.
But the Red Sox don't need Barnes to be a cheerleader. With the game on the line, they need him to be a killer.
"We're going to get this right," Barnes said. "Make no mistake -- this is going to get fixed and I'm going to go back to being exactly what I was three weeks ago. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind about that. Whatever AC and Bushy want to do that they feel is the right decision for the team to help us win ballgames, I will be completely on board with. That is the No. 1 goal right now. I'll say it over and over."