For Matt Barnes, London represented a reckoning.
On June 30, the righthander allowed three runs while retiring just one batter in a 12-8 loss to the Yankees. That performance punctuated a month in which Barnes had an exhausting workload (15 games, second most in the majors) with horrific results, as opponents tagged him at a .296/.409/.407 clip while saddling him with a 9.69 ERA for the month.
Barnes had a roughly hour-long meeting with pitching coach Dana LeVangie and assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister in London immediately after the June 30 outing to discuss the source of his struggles. Despite the workload, Barnes actually felt good about the quality of his pitches. He just saw opponents doing damage in counts and locations where they hadn’t earlier in the year.
“We went over everything: What’s getting hit, what’s not getting hit, gameplans, attacking guys. It wasn’t mechanical for me. It was more sequencing and how I was using my stuff,” explained Barnes. “I thought my stuff was good. What I was trying to execute, I was, but it wasn’t the right pitch or right location of the pitch.”
For instance, Barnes had been using his fastball for most of the year right at the top of the strike zone. In July, he started to vary his location with it, working in a wider vertical range in the strike zone. He started throwing fewer first-pitch curveballs, and when he did, he started throwing them to more diverse locations.
Meanwhile, manager Alex Cora and the Red Sox changed how they were employing Barnes. They’ve gone to him more judiciously, as entering Sunday, he’d appeared in just nine games in July while logging seven shutout innings while striking out 14 of 26 batters (53.8 percent) he’d faced. With that decreased workload has come livelier stuff.
“Any time you can throw with a little bit more rest, you’re going to fare a little better. You feel better. That’s just the way it is,” said Barnes. “Your arm is more fresh [and] your stuff is definitely going to tick up a little bit.”
That improved stuff has been employed by the Sox in a different fashion than was the case for most of the season’s first three months. Through late June, Barnes was chiefly pitching in the eighth and ninth innings. Recently, much of his work has come in the seventh and even sixth innings, with the Sox trusting him in mid-game situations with runners on base while trying to leave clean innings later in the game for Brandon Workman and Nate Eovaldi.
Most notably, on Saturday, he entered with the Red Sox leading the Yankees, 5-3, with two on and two outs in the top of the sixth. Barnes — whose ability to dominate with a high-90s four-seamer and curveball is highlighted by an AL-best 42.5 percent strikeout rate — struck out Kyle Higashioka to end the sixth, then struck out three more Yankees (around a two-out double) in a scoreless seventh.
“It’s kind of like last year,” Cora said of his July usage of Barnes. “He’s in a spot that very quietly and without people noticing, he’s pitching in high leverage situations with two outs and getting the big out of the game. He did last year. I know he can do it. I think usage lately has been a lot better than last month. Last month, it was just the nature of the month. We needed him to pitch that many games . . . Now we pick our spots and instead of going for whatever, back-to-back games facing four or five guys. Maybe one guy and then four guys the next day and maybe the next day he’s not pitching or he might pitch. I think we’re picking and choosing how we’re going to use him. He’s been great.”
The cost of a pint
After Saturday night’s game, Jackie Bradley Jr. faced a sudden crisis. Upon returning to his residence from the ballpark, he discovered that his freezer was out of Ben & Jerry’s Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream, and his grocery store likewise was without one of his two go-to flavors (along with cookies and cream) that he tries to keep stocked at all times.
“You’ve got to have it in the fridge a majority of the time. I never know when I’d want to dive in there,” explained Bradley. “It has to be an option. Options are good. They allow you to make decisions.”
Bradley sought assistance in the matter. He posted an Instagram story explaining his plight and seeking help. His account was flooded with responses. Bradley selected three winners, met with them at Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar, and got the precious pints, each for two tickets.
“It was worth that,” said Bradley.
The handoffs, meanwhile, underscored a sense of shared humanity, a conviction about the goodness in the world perhaps best summarized by the notion that I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.
“The interaction was pretty special,” said Bradley. “It allows me to get to know them, them to get to know me, and make them see that we’re all the same.”
For starters, better starts
Cora attributed the Red Sox’ recent success — five wins in six games against the Rays and Yankees entering Sunday — to better work by the rotation. The team entered Sunday having received at least 5⅔ innings and no more than three earned runs allowed in each of those six contests.
“Everything starts with pitching,” said Cora. “Those guys are giving us six innings almost every night, keeping the ball in the ballpark too lately so that’s good, it’s given our offense a chance to get going.”
The Red Sox entered Sunday with a 35-18 record (.660) when their starters had contributed at least six innings, and a 24-29 mark (.453) when getting fewer than six innings . . . Cora also noted the importance of an explosive first-inning offense in the team’s surge. Through 80 games, the Sox averaged just 0.4 first-inning runs per game. In the 26 contests entering Sunday — which started with the insertion of Rafael Devers into the second spot in the batting order behind Mookie Betts — the team averaged 1.6 runs in the opening inning.
“One of the things we did great last year was scoring early in the game and this year we struggled there for a while,” said Cora. “Now it seems like we’re scoring in the first inning a lot. It’s helpful for the pitchers too. I think that really helps. You’re up 2-0, 1-0 and you’ve got margin for error.”
Johnson getting ready
Lefthander Brian Johnson is expected to make a minor league rehab appearance of two innings on Tuesday in preparation for a likely return to the big leagues for a start against the Yankees in one of the games of Saturday’s doubleheader in New York. The Red Sox have David Price, Rick Porcello, and Andrew Cashner lined up to face the Rays at Fenway after Monday’s off-day. That order, in turn, would slot Eduardo Rodriguez into a start next Friday in Yankee Stadium, followed by Chris Sale and Johnson on Saturday, and Price on Sunday . . . The Yankees placed CC Sabathia on the 10-day injured list due to right knee inflammation, which will render the veteran unavailable for next weekend’s Red Sox-Yankees series.