BALTIMORE — The pitch that could land Matt Barnes on the All-Star team this season was taught to him in the outfield before a minor league game six years ago.
Barnes and then Double A teammates Brandon Workman and Anthony Ranaudo were in Trenton, N.J., waiting for batting practice to end and got to discussing curveballs. Workman showed him the grip he used and when Barnes tried it, the ball danced in a way he had not seen before.
“I threw it the next game I pitched,” Barnes said. “I’ve had it ever since.”
Opponents are 1 for 30 against that curveball this season with 18 strikeouts. Barnes has 27 strikeouts in 14⅓ innings overall and the Sox are 11-3 in games he has pitched.
Barnes got a four-out save in Tuesday night’s 8-5 victory against the Orioles. He left two runners stranded in the eighth inning, then finished the game off in the ninth.
That Barnes has only three saves is almost meaningless. What matters more is that 79 percent of the pitches he has thrown have come in high- or medium-leverage situations.
Translation: Barnes pitches when it counts against the best hitters. Call him a relief ace or whatever you want. He’s the man in big spots.
“I like what they’re doing with me. It’s always an important situation and I’ve always got to be locked in,” Barnes said. “It’s been fun.”
In an era in which hitters sell out for power with big uppercut swings, a curveball is one of the best solutions. That Barnes has such a good one helps to explain his success.
He’s able to bury it down and away to righthanded hitters and down and in to lefties. Good luck launching that.
“This is the best it’s been. I have a very good feel for it right now,” Barnes said.
That brought up what seemed like a natural question: Why not throw it all the time?
“I did it in the postseason last year. I threw it 16 times in a row at one point,” Barnes said. “If it’s working and they’re not getting good swings on it, why not?”
Barnes feels there’s no reason to change what is working. He’ll let the hitters tell him when to adjust.
“I’ve gotten hurt on that before, changing in anticipation of something happening,” he said.
Barnes’s fastball is actually being hit relatively hard, which has led to a higher percentage of curveballs. He’s working on correcting that.
“It’s almost reversed now. I’m using my off-speed pitch to set up my fastball,” Barnes said. “You can’t do that now; everybody throws hard. Even if you throw hard, you have to locate.”
Barnes throws what is called a “spike” curveball. He sets his index finger on the seam and presses on the ball with his middle finger. That creates better movement and a tighter spin.
“I had a slow, loopy curveball. Nothing special,” Barnes said. “Workman said, ‘You should try this,’ and here we are.”
The pitch has developed over the years and Barnes can now shape his curveball for where he is in the count.
“He’s been great,” manager Alex Cora said. “We saw this coming back year, the situations that he pitched in.”
Experience also plays a role. Barnes, 28, has been a key member of the bullpen since 2016. Earned run average is not always an accurate way to assess relievers, but his has dropped every year.
Barnes also has learned a mind-set that matches up with his physical ability. Talent was never a question going back to when Barnes was the 19th overall pick of the 2011 draft. But now there’s more.
“You have to stay with your scouting report, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Sometimes, I used to get [mad] at myself after a bad pitch and I would try to do more. Doing more makes your stuff worse and your command worse.
“As long as you’re prepared and you know how you want to attack a hitter and your sequence of pitches, you’ll be just fine. The job is to execute pitches.
“I may give up runs even when I do that because that’s the game. It happens. But as long as you’re prepared, more times than not you’ll be OK.”
Barnes also benefited from being around Craig Kimbrel for three seasons. He has adopted Kimbrel’s postgame workout routine and taken on a leadership role with the relievers.
Relievers come and go on most teams. But Barnes has been a constant for the Sox.
“He’s been good in the clubhouse with that group as far as preparation. He learned a lot from Craig,” Cora said. “So far, so good. He’s been amazing for us.”