As he met Matt Barnes on the mound in the ninth inning Tuesday, it became clear how much Alex Cora wanted to avoid a closer crisis.
Cora had given Barnes an 11-8 lead over Minnesota. The righthander needed just two batters to render that advantage insecure, allowing a Josh Donaldson homer before walking Luis Arraez on four pitches. That performance — on the heels of a seven-outing stretch in which Barnes had allowed nine runs in 4⅓ innings (18.69 ERA) with three losses and two blown saves — set off alarms that Cora wanted to silence.
The Red Sox manager burst from the dugout. His desire to see Barnes reestablish himself was obvious. The manager slapped Barnes in the chest at the start of the conversation, shared words of encouragement, then backslapped his closer a few times before returning to the dugout.
But the pep talk lacked effect. Barnes walked Mitch Garver. With the tying runs on base, Cora could no longer afford his closer the latitude to work through his struggles. He yanked Barnes — an All-Star who’d racked up 24 saves while emerging as arguably the most valuable reliever in the American League through the end of July — in favor of Hansel Robles.
“We’re concerned; we are,” Cora acknowledged. “Obviously we’re not going to pick on the guy, but we have to make adjustments, whatever.”
Robles, leaning chiefly on a 97-99 m.p.h. fastball, provided what Barnes could not. He struck out two before a game-ending lineout to second base, picking up his 11th save of the season and his first since being traded to the Red Sox from the Twins at the deadline.
“Hansel came in and did an amazing job,” said Cora. “His stuff was electric.”
Barnes, meanwhile, saw his vulnerability deepen. Against his four-seam fastball this month, opponents are 8 for 15 with three homers and three doubles — a .533 average and 1.333 slugging mark.
He expressed bewilderment about the depth of his struggles without hiding from their extent or consequences.
“Frustrated is probably a bit of an understatement,” he said. “It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. I picked a bad time to start sucking.”
Indeed he did. That awareness allowed Barnes to accept Cora’s decision to pull him mid-inning, and compelled him to cheerlead for Robles from the dugout.
“In a situation like that, I can be pissed at myself later,” said Barnes. “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.
“It would have been incredibly selfish of myself to sit while everybody is cheering while he’s trying to clean up my mess. The right thing to do to be a good teammate was to get on the top step, cheering him on.”
Barnes took a similar view when asked if he thought he could benefit from a sabbatical from the closer’s role.
“I’m going to leave that decision up to [Cora and pitching coach Dave Bush],” said Barnes. “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 A.C. 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’m going to keep grinding, man. We have 30-some-odd games left, a little over a month before the postseason. I’m going to keep working. It ain’t going to stop now. I have full anticipation, or I anticipate fully getting to the postseason with this squad. I’m going to make sure that I do my part.”
It remains to be seen in what stage of the game Barnes will contribute — at least in the short term. It’s hard to imagine the Red Sox turning to him as a high-leverage first option until he regains the effectiveness of his fastball.
Perhaps Robles — who has 13 strikeouts and eight walks in 9⅓ innings since joining the Sox — will get an opportunity to close. Perhaps the team will consider rookie Garrett Whitlock (who replaced Barnes in the middle of the ninth inning Monday, after Barnes allowed a game-tying two-run double to the Rangers). Or perhaps the Sox will take a less-settled approach.
Barnes knows that the Sox have a number of options to consider. Yet for all of his disappointment in his performance, and the natural questions about a potential role change, Barnes chose to focus on a different aspect of Tuesday night.
“It’s about winning ballgames,” he said. “Even with my struggles the last couple of nights, guys have come through in the clutch to pick me up and we won both ballgames.”