FORT MYERS, Fla. — There comes a time in every setup man’s career when it’s time to take the big role.
Matt Barnes: This is your moment.
Or we think it is.
Barnes, one of the many early arrivals to JetBlue Park — about a week ahead of the official opening of Red Sox spring camp —
says he hasn’t been told anything about the closer role and replacing Craig Kimbrel, who is an unsigned free agent. But if he is the anointed replacement, he seems ready to take that next step.
The Red Sox are selling it as a combination of Barnes and Ryan Brasier handling the late-inning roles. So far, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has not engaged in talks with Kimbrel and has seen several free agent relievers with closer experience go to other teams, holding firm that he will not spend a lot to obtain a closer, given Boston’s supersized payroll.
“I haven’t been told my role has changed at all, so I’m just trying to come in and get some work done,” said Barnes, who was one of 40-plus pitchers (major and minor leaguers) playing catch at one point Tuesday.
Last season, Barnes went 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA in 62 games. He struck out 96 batters in 61⅔ innings. He surrendered just one run in 8⅔ postseason innings.
Until he is told he is the closer, Barnes said, he swears he’s not going to think about it. He just wants to keep evolving as a late-inning reliever and adapting to the new things he has learned from pitching in a World Series and from Kimbrel, whom he referred to as “the best reliever on the planet.”
While some relievers will say getting three outs in the ninth inning is no different from any other inning, Barnes disagrees.
“The last three outs are definitely different, no matter how you draw them up,” he said. “But I’m going to take the experience of playing in the playoffs and the World Series and realize that they were high-leverage innings no matter when they occurred.
“The fourth inning with guys on can be a critical point in that game and in that series. And that’s not taking anything away from a game in the ninth inning in the middle of May. So I’m going to try to draw on those situations.”
The 28-year-old former University of Connecticut star feels his four-plus big league seasons have taught him valuable lessons because “you learn about yourself, your body, how your stuff plays the best. The longer you play, the more knowledge you gather and hopefully the better you become.”
Barnes, who was married this offseason, said that for a kid from New England (Bethel, Conn.), winning a World Series with the Red Sox was extra special.
“That’s what you dream of,” he said. “First of all, you want to get to the big leagues, and then you want to win a World Series. That’s the epitome in terms of a team goal. That’s as high as you can go.
“But we want to focus on this year now. Last year was an incredible year. We had a lot of fun. We did some incredible things, but it’s 2019 now and we’re getting ready to repeat.
“Winning one is hard, let alone winning two. We all know we have a great team. When you win a World Series, things have to go your way. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are; things have to go your way.”
While Barnes always felt the closer was the biggest role in the bullpen, he knows that things have evolved. The Andrew Miller strategy of pitching in the highest-leverage situations in a given game has become important.
“I’m a guy who has always said, ‘I’ll do whatever they need me to do,’ ” said Barnes. “Whether it’s the fourth inning or the ninth inning. Just try to get the job done as well as I can.
“There’s a notion that the ninth inning isn’t always the most crucial. There are so many different things going on. I’m still keeping the same philosophy and trying to stay even-keeled.”
Even though the Red Sox lost Joe Kelly (to the Dodgers) and may not retain Kimbrel, Barnes said, “I think we’re going to be just fine. Joe was a great guy, great teammate.”
He said he learned a ton from being around Kimbrel.
“He was a great mentor and the best reliever in the game,” said Barnes. “To be able to dominate in this league for as long as he has and will continue to do so, is incredible.
“The first time I ever played catch with him was after we acquired him. We were in Montreal for exhibition games, and watching him play catch, he was so meticulous and knew everything he was doing. If something was a little bit off, he was all over it and working on correcting it.
“And I had always been lackadaisical while playing catch, because I always took it as a chance to get loose and nothing else. But the concentration he put into playing catch was so mind-boggling to me because we’re talking about the greatest closer in the game.
“To watch him be so meticulous, I felt like a fool for not paying more attention to it. If he’s the best in the game and he’s doing this, then why am I not doing that? Because if that is what I aspire to be, I need to do that. That’s a snippet of how he operates.”
Whether he becomes the closer or continues in his present role, Barnes knows where he wants to improve.
“I want to cut down on the unintentional walks,” he said. “There are situations where I’m purposely trying to pitch cautiously to a hitter given the situation of a game or where runners are on. If there’s a three-run game and two outs and I’m walking a guy, I need to cut that out.”
Manager Alex Cora really believes in Barnes. He throws in the 95-97-mile-per-hour range. He has swing-and-miss stuff. He can strike people out. He can dominate.
Is he ready to take over for Kimbrel?
There comes a time in every setup man’s career when he will provide the answer to that crucial question.