His star may have shone the brightest coming into the season, but as the All-Star break approaches, Portland's youngest pitcher, right-hander Matt Barnes, has been overshadowed by some of his more experienced compatriots in the rotation.
Brandon Workman earned a quick promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket, while left-hander Drake Britton and right-hander Anthony Ranaudo have dominated at times through the first half of the season.
But in his July 23 start at Trenton, Portland right-hander Matt Barnes showed off some of his development in what has been a challenging Double-A campaign by pitching to his game plan and using his heavy fastball to cruise through the outing.
Barnes and catcher Matt Spring exploited a light-hitting Trenton lineup, and attacked hitters with his fastball -- 84 of his 96 pitches were fastballs -- on his way to five three-hit, shutout innings in which he fanned eight but walked a career-high five batters. Barnes exited the game with a 2-0 lead after five innings, but the Portland bats turned the game into an 11-0 laugher in the late innings.
"He competed extremely well today," Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper said after the game. "He responded to all the game challenges and, quite frankly, some of the self-induced challenges. He went out there and walked five guys today, which is probably a little bit uncharacteristic of Matt Barnes, but there was always a response, an adjustment, an ability to re-establish and reclaim the strike zone. He made some big pitches in some challenging situations today."
Such descriptors -- sticking with the pregame plan for hitters, making pitches in big situations, responding to game challenges -- aren't typically used for pitchers of Barnes' pedigree. But in a season when Barnes has been hurt by the big inning, his effectiveness with runners on base Sunday showed strides that will be useful as he climbs to Boston.
Barnes threw exclusively fastballs in the first inning, and got into his first high-leverage situation after a one-out walk, a stolen base, and a bloop single put runners on first and third with one down. But Barnes found his fastball command and fanned the next two batters.
Another one-out walk in the second inning was erased by a 6-4-3 double play, and Barnes issued his third one-out free pass of the game in the third inning. But for all of his control issues, Barnes was always able to regain control of his fastball and get out of the inning.
"He did a really good job getting ahead of guys and we were trying too hard to put guys away, but he calmed down and made some good pitches. He pitched really well today," Spring said.
In the third inning, Barnes began to introduce his breaking ball. The pitch flashed above-average potential, with tight two-plane break. The offering was inconsistent, but Barnes didn't need it against Trenton.
"Nobody in that lineup proved that they could hit (the fastball) today, so until they can prove that they can hit it, it just doesn't make sense (to throw something else)," Barnes said.
Manager Kevin Boles said Barnes has struggled with "not giving in to certain hitters if their bat speed is a little bit suspect, and giving them the off-speed, that can be more of a gift at times."
But as the outing progressed, Barnes was able to steal early strikes with his breaking ball, and he snuck one in the back door for a key strikeout with a man on base in the fourth. His seven other strikeouts came on his fastball, which sat between 92-94 mph and topped out at 95 mph. Its late life confounded Trenton hitters when it was in the strike zone, and Barnes was able to both locate the pitch on the corners and elevate it in the zone with two strikes.
Overall, the outing was consistent with what Boles said before the game was his impression of Barnes throughout the season.
"He's got a quality arm," Boles said. "One thing I do think is the execution has to be a little bit better with the fastball. Sometimes he has good leverage to the fastball; he's down in the zone, but (there are) other times where he misses -- that's with all young pitchers. I think the breaking ball needs to get a little better shape, that's coming along nicely, and he's going to have a feel for a changeup."
Overall, the 2011 first-round pick out of UConn lowered his ERA from 5.49 to 5.03 with the effort in Trenton and evened his record at 4-4 with the win, but he says the numbers don't tell the full story.
"Numbers are very misleading unless you see somebody pitch; unless you watch them perform you really don't know anything," he said. "The numbers aren't the best, but I feel great, I'm stringing a couple good ones, decent ones together and going from there."
Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.