The closer position was left wide open by Red Sox manager Alex Cora during Spring Training, and Matt Barnes swooped in and seized the opportunity.
As the longest-tenured member of Boston’s bullpen, Barnes could have stayed set in his old ways and still had a chance to win the job.
But instead, he did something different. Barnes made two key adjustments: One was mechanical and the other was pitching mindset.
They have both been catalysts for Barnes, now in his sixth full season in the Red Sox ‘pen, taking his game to the next level.
Barnes had made five appearances totaling six innings entering Wednesday’s doubleheader. He has faced 19 batters and dispatched 18 of them. Barnes had one walk on Opening Day. Other than that, he has a completely clean stat sheet.
Of the 18 outs Barnes has recorded, 12 have been on strikeouts.
So what exactly did he do?
First, the mechanical adjustment.
“We made a change, probably sometime the end of January,” said Barnes. “I decided that I was going to stick with my hands down around the belt. We talked about it in years past, but never could get comfortable with it, and for some reason this year, got really comfortable with it and decided to stick with it.”
Second, the change in mentality.
“I’m trying to work a little quicker. I try to come right after guys, trying to attack guys,” said Barnes. “I think there’s been periods in my career, I’ve kind of danced around the strike zone a little bit, and then kind of put myself into bad situations in which then I’ve got to really lock it down — so trying to kind of avoid that and kind of come after guys and force guys to put good swings on the ball.”
Though Cora playfully chose not to announce who his closer is, even as recently as last weekend, everyone knows that Barnes won the job.
“A lot of competitive pitches,” Cora said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about, not only this year, but it’s something that we’ve talked about in 2019, in the second half. I thought [everything] was either a strikeout or a walk. There was no contact. Matty, this is the most aggressive he’s been since I’ve managed him. Like I said, his fastball is a little bit different this year from other years.”
A light went on for Barnes in Spring Training when the team had a pitcher’s meeting that included pitching coach Dave Bush and assistant pitching coach Kevin Walker, as well as members of the analytics staff.
“It just kind of pointed out some interesting things on what happens when you attack the strike zone early,” said Barnes. “The differences between when you get ahead [and] when you don’t, from like a pure numbers standpoint, damage and swings in an 0-0 count.”
“I think it’s something like, if you want to throw a fastball down the middle of the plate every single time for 100 pitches, 92% of the time you get a positive outcome. Whether that’s a strike, a take, a foul ball or an out. If I get a positive outcome 92% of the time I throw a fastball in the middle of the plate, imagine if I locate it or B, even if I don’t, I’ll take my chances at 92%.
“You’re not going to get better odds than that in any sport, so it’s just the mentality of trying to go after guys, trying to make hitters defensive, trying to apply some pressure to them. And in turn, by getting them engaged, it’s going to allow me to expand the zone more, so it’s worked out well so far for me, so I’m gonna keep going doing the same thing I’m doing.”
Mata undergoes Tommy John
When the Red Sox revealed on March 6 that No. 5 prospect Bryan Mata had a slight tear in his UCL, it seemed highly possible the end result could be Tommy John surgery for the righty.
After first putting Mata on a conservative path in the hope he could avoid surgery, the club announced on Wednesday that Mata in fact underwent Tommy John surgery.
The procedure was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. The hope is that Mata will be able to pitch again at some point in 2022.
Mata is the Boston’s top-ranked pitching prospect, per MLB Pipeline. The 21-year-old from Venezuela was signed as an international free agent by the Red Sox in 2016.
For Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Red Sox added righty Eduard Bazardo to the roster as their 27th player. It is the first time in the Major Leagues for Bazardo, Boston’s No. 28 prospect.
“He’s going to help us,” said Cora. “I don’t know if we’re going to use him today, but he’s here. Throughout the season, this guy, he’ll help us. Good fastball, the best breaking ball. Everybody talks about it in the organization, right? A strike-thrower. A strike-throwing machine. He’s not afraid.”