SoxProspects: Barnes solid in first start

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Friday night marked Matt Barnes’ first start of the season, but outside of a couple of hiccups and an abbreviated pitch count, you would hardly know it based on the five strong innings the right-hander put together.

“He had fastball command tonight, he had a feel for a breaking ball, and threw a couple good changeups,” Pawtucket Red Sox manager Kevin Boles said following the start. “He attacked the zone. I thought it was very impressive for his first time out.”

Barnes is currently the eighth-ranked prospect on SoxProspects.com, coming off a solid 2013 season spent mostly in Portland in which he struck out 142 batters in 113 1/3 innings with a 4.13 ERA. The 6-foot-4 UConn alum owed the delayed start to his season this year to a sore shoulder. Any mention of a shoulder injury for pitchers usually will raise red flags, but in this case, Barnes described it as minor.

“It was just a little tenderness,” Barnes said. “It was early in the season, just kind of wanted to be cautious with it. But I feel really good now.”

“I think the good thing is, normally, when guys are coming back off of injuries or having setbacks, the command’s usually the last thing to come,” Boles said. “But we saw some really good signs tonight and he attacked the zone. I thought the tempo was good, the pace of his delivery was good.”

The results reflected Boles’ observations, as Barnes picked up the win, allowing one earned run on six hits over five innings to go along with a pair of walks and strikeouts. Perhaps the only real trouble he ran into was when he gave up back-to-back hits to lead off the fifth inning, putting men on second and third with no outs. After those two hits, he was at 74 pitches, and with a target pitch count of around 75 coming in, it looked like it could be an opportune time to take Barnes out of the game.

In the manager’s eyes though, it was instead an opportune time for Barnes to grow as a pitcher.

“We want guys to try to work out of jams,” Boles said. “Obviously, we’re going to go within reason with the pitch count, so we did that. He had a few pitches left to go and we gave him a chance to finish that fifth inning and he sure pulled it through.”

That he did, as he needed just seven more pitches to retire the next three batters in order, including a sacrifice fly that drove in the only earned run he allowed on the day.

In the outing he featured his best pitch, the fastball, especially in the first two innings. The heater sat around 91-94 mph on the McCoy Stadium radar gun -- a range confirmed by scouts behind home -- and touched 97 once in the fourth inning. Although the McCoy Stadium gun sometimes adds a mile per hour or so, it was encouraging for Barnes to hold his velocity and even max out late in the start.

“I make a living off my fastball and being able to locate the fastball,” the 23-year-old said. “Everything else kind of comes off of that, so especially first time out there, I definitely want to get ahead with that and establish it.”

Boles endorsed the fastball-heavy approach for Barnes as well.

“Absolutely, it’s his best pitch, the fastball,” he said. “I don’t know what the velocity was, but it looked like it was coming out of his hand pretty good. Establishing fastball command, working ahead in the count: That’s what we’re looking for. He’s not a guy that’s going to pitch backward. You know what you have -- guys know when they step up to the plate that he’s going to be aggressive with his fastball.”

While relying on the heater, as the outing progressed Barnes mixed in his two secondary pitches, a curveball and a changeup. Particularly in the third inning, he seemed to make an effort to feature them more, throwing three secondaries out of the four pitches to the first batter in the inning, striking him out swinging on a 77-mph curveball. The changeup sat around 83-85 mph and was the more consistent pitch for him in the outing. It’s a pitch that he feels has developed well for him recently.

“I thought the changeup was really good,” Barnes said. “That’s kind of been my staple secondary pitch for the last season and a half, or last season. I thought the curveball has been a little inconsistent, so it was nice to have that changeup that I could go to as a secondary I could count on.”

Though he flashed a few plus curveballs in the game, the offering can come and go for him at times. The mildly cold weather probably did not help with gripping the ball, but the Connecticut native said he actually prefers such conditions to pitching in the heat, having pitched in New England his whole life. True to that, the weather did not prevent Barnes from snapping off a few nice benders in the 75-77 mph range.

“The curveball was kind of hit or miss for me tonight,” he said. “Some of them were really good, some of them I kind of lagged behind on and left high arm-side. It’s a work in progress -- it always is. It’s the first one out back in a real competitive atmosphere in a while, so I was happy with it.”

Glad to be out of extended spring training in Fort Myers -- he admitted that getting motivated to pitch in a 10 a.m. game on the back fields was a challenge at times -- Barnes is happy to be in a competitive environment again. Though just one step away from the major leagues, he is well aware of the heavy competition he faces among his peers in Pawtucket’s all-prospect rotation, which also includes Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster and Brandon Workman. All Barnes can do is continue to pitch like he did Friday night and hope that will put him in position to be called upon should the major league club need a starter.

Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.