PAWTUCKET — The highly touted right-handed pitcher that breezed through the lower levels of the minor leagues ended up learning an important lesson this season – there’s not always going to be smooth sailing.
As Matt Barnes experienced firsthand in Double-A Portland, the days of cruising on autopilot was no longer a luxury. That’s what happens when you go from overpowering Single-A hitters to toeing the rubber against a more advanced group that isn’t always going to be tardy on fastballs, which according to soxprospects.com is a pitch that Barnes generally throws in the 91-95 miles-per-hour range.
In that respect, Barnes’ learning curve was steep. He was a newcomer to the Eastern League scene and at times looked very much like a fresh arrival. After 20 starts for the Sea Dogs, his ERA sat at 4.33 to go along with a 1.46 WHIP, 135 strikeouts and 46 walks in 108 innings.
Dominating numbers? Not when you place them side-by side with Barnes’ 2012 output, which saw him post a 2.86 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 25 starts between Single-A affiliates Greenville and Salem. Still, there is one category where the former University of Connecticut standout has shown noticeable improvement. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings figure stands at 11.2 this season, up from 10.0 a season ago.
In a season that could be best described as a period of growth, the Red Sox have formulated the belief that the time has come for Barnes to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Ranaudo, Drake Britton and Brandon Workman, three pitchers who helped make up a formidable Opening Day rotation for the Sea Dogs. The 23-year-old officially arrived at McCoy Stadium on Wednesday afternoon and is scheduled to make his Pawtucket Red Sox debut Thursday night at McCoy Stadium against Syracuse.
“I was a little surprised, but obviously excited,” stated Barnes, who learned of the good news from Portland skipper Kevin Boles following Tuesday night’s game in New Hampshire. “I’m trying to help (the PawSox) nail down a playoff berth and win it all. You want to join a team that’s winning and has a chance to go to the playoffs.
“All three of those guys (Ranaudo, Britton and Workman) are phenomenal pitchers and the fact that I get to move along with them is really exciting,” added Barnes, who was selected by Boston with the 18th overall pick in the 2011 MLB first-year player draft.
Barnes offered an honest assessment when asked to reflect on his 2013 output with the Sea Dogs, one that includes a 5-10 record and four losses coming in his final six starts.
“If you were to specifically look at the numbers, it hasn’t been the best year,” he said, “but as a pitcher, I’ve been able to develop mentally while maintaining the health of my body throughout the course of the season. From that standpoint, it’s been a productive year.
“The way I came into the year to where I am now, I think I’m a much better pitcher,” Barnes continued. “I have a lot more confidence in my secondary stuff and just working on being as consistent as possible with those pitches … for the last month-and-a-half to two months, I’ve been able to do that.”
From Ranaudo’s vantage point, Barnes didn’t back down from the challenge of adjusting to a new league.
“No matter what the circumstances were, Matt was out there competing and trying to get better,” Ranaudo said. “He was learning a new level and some of those numbers are attributed to that, but hopefully everything pays off now that he’s (in Pawtucket).”
Barnes delved further about the importance of addressing his breaking pitches as he prepared to face an elevated brand of competition in 2013.
“I came into spring training and worked with some of the (Red Sox) pitching coaches. I changed my grip and ended up sticking with it,” Barnes explained. “My curveball has become a good pitch for me and between that and the changeup, I’ve been working on staying comfortable.”
Originally, Barnes was slated to start for Portland on Wednesday. An opening in Pawtucket’s rotation came as a result of Boston trading Clayton Mortensen to Kansas City earlier this week. Mortensen was in line to start Thursday for the PawSox, a turn that now goes to Barnes.
“I got to play some catch (Wednesday) and do what I need to do in order to get ready for (Thursday night). Then it becomes a matter of going out here and getting after it,” said Barnes, a Connecticut native. “I grew up in this area and definitely know who the PawSox are. The fact I get to play this close to home is a treat.”
Added Ranaudo, “It’s a great opportunity for Matt and hopefully he can make the most of it.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03