From the dugout, Red Sox interim manager Torey Lovullo checked Matt Barnes’s fuel light and knew the righthander still had pitches left in the tank when he took the mound in the sixth inning.
But the light started blinking when Barnes got to two strikes on Kendrys Morales, but couldn’t find a pitch to finish him off.
He tried his fastball, and missed.
Then he went to his changeup and Morales fouled it off.
Then he went back to his fastball and missed again, giving Morales first base with one out.
In the next at-bat, Barnes got two strikes on Mike Moustakas only to have Moustakas fight off a fastball on the fringe of the plate and a curveball that dived into the dirt and, eventually, slice a changeup opposite field for a single.
Barnes’s arm still felt strong.
“I felt good out there. I did,” Barnes said. “The two of them put together good at-bats. They kept fighting off some tough pitches. Probably could’ve gone to a heater in to Moustakas, but kind of moved offspeed away. But I still felt good at that point.”
But Barnes was up to 93 pitches after throwing 102 on Monday in his first major league start of the season. Before that, his highest pitch count was 84, in April.
“He had pitches left,” Lovullo said. “We felt like he didn’t reach the number that we were looking at.”
Pitching coach Carl Willis met Barnes at the mound. Heath Hembree was warming up in the Sox bullpen, but Willis was hoping that Barnes had enough pitches left in him to get out of the one-out jam.
“Any time you have a young pitcher that is working through lineups and having success, the last thing you want to do is pull the rug out from under them,” Lovullo said. “You want to let them feel situations, you want to let them work through and have success in certain situations.”
Barnes threw three more pitches.
He missed with a first-pitch fastball to Salvador Perez, got him to whiff on a changeup down in the zone, then left a fastball out over the plate. When Perez blasted it into the Red Sox bullpen for a three-run home run, Barnes’s night was done.
“I know he had something in the tank,” Lovullo said. “I know that he had a few extra moments there where he could’ve got some outs. He just made a few mistakes at the wrong time.”
The homer all but secured the Royals’ 6-3 win and wiped out an otherwise sturdy performance from Barnes in just his third start at any level since May.
On a night when the Red Sox’ offense finally went cold, Barnes gave up a pair of runs in the first inning on a two-run double by Morales, then regrouped to keep the Royals quiet through the next four frames.
He allowed eight hits in 5 ⅓ innings, but he threw 36 of his 93 pitches for strikes, got a pair of timely strikeouts to end the third and fourth innings, and induced a double-play ball in the fifth to keep the Sox in striking distance.
But facing an offense that had scored 73 runs on 113 hits over the first eight games of this current homestand, Royals starter Yordano Ventura cooled off the Sox’ bats.
He hadn’t had much success against the Sox in his previous three starts against the Sox, going 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA, but Ventura held the Sox to one run on six hits in six innings of work. He finished with six strikeouts, fanning Pablo Sandoval and Jackie Bradley Jr. twice each.
“I think Ventura did a good job of really bearing down when we had men in scoring position,” Lovullo said. “I know we left a number of runners on base in critical moments. We just couldn’t get the big hit tonight, and you’re going to have those moments.”
Mookie Betts (1 for 5) extended his hitting streak to eight games with his seventh-inning homer. David Ortiz (2 for 2 with three walks) and Xander Bogaerts were the only players in the Sox lineup with multiple hits.
The Sox, who had a chance to extend their winning streak to a season-high five games, went 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position. The Sox didn’t get on the board until the sixth, when Bogaerts and Ortiz led off the inning with back-to-back singles and Bogaerts scored on Travis Shaw’s fielder’s choice to second.
Bogaerts’s RBI single in the ninth cut the deficit to three, and the Sox brought the winning run to the plate in the ninth inning when Ortiz worked a six-pitch walk. But Royals closer Greg Holland killed the threat by getting Travis Shaw to pop up on the first pitch to close the game.
“We brought the winning run to the plate,” Lovullo said. “We didn’t just shut down.”
For Barnes, returning to a role as a starter is a process. All but two of his 28 major league appearances this season have come in relief. In Pawtucket, he came out of the bullpen 32 times in 38 games.
“There’s a process of going back and building up,” Barnes said. “Obviously I was in the bullpen for a few months. So this is the longest stretch — tonight is the deepest I’ve gone into a game or the longest I’ve thrown since that first week in May. So it was definitely a process to get back up there, conditioning, trying to get your arm back used to it.”
Lovullo saw the night as a building block.
“I know this is going to sting a little bit, he’s going to remember and he’s going to grow and learn,” Lovullo said. “That’s the key for a young pitcher.”
Despite giving up the homer in a tight spot, the eighth he’s allowed this season, Barnes left feeling the same way.
“Those are situations you’ve got to work on,” Barnes said. “They’re going to pop up. Hopefully not that much, but they are going to be there and you’re going to be in those situations again. Those are situations you’ve got to learn from. Even if the result isn’t what you want. You almost learn more from that than if you execute every single time. You’re not going to succeed without some struggles.”