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August 21, 2014 at 4:50 PM

Barnes continues resurgence behind explosive fastball, strong curve

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- At Pawtucket’s All-Star break, not much was going right for Matt Barnes. He had given up six earned runs in his final start of the first half, landing the 24-year-old right-hander with a 5.06 ERA entering the break. But Barnes was not giving up on the season, and he took to Twitter before his first start of the second half to declare it was “[t]ime to turn it around and finish strong.” With a 1.63 ERA in six starts since, capped off by 6 1/3 shutout innings Wednesday night, Barnes is backing up his talk.

“Anytime you can string together some good outings, it’s definitely a lot of fun,” Barnes said following the start. “But I think the big thing is being able to go out there and give quality starts now to put the team in a position to win.”

On Wednesday, Barnes had little trouble handling a weak Lehigh Valley lineup, striking out seven and giving up just one hit—a groundball that found a hole up the middle—before the seventh when he began to run out of gas. He established his fastball early and often, sitting 92-94 mph on the McCoy Stadium radar gun, and topping out at 95.

“I thought his fastball was real crisp and explosive at times,” Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles said. “He could finish with it with two strikes.”

His ability to do just that and pick up strikeouts with the fastball was perhaps the most impressive part of the outing: Five of his seven punchouts came as a result of batters swinging through the heater. Though he said afterwards his command was not where he wanted it on the pitch, as he left some up in the zone, a fastball that elicits swing-and-misses that frequently is a rare commodity and valuable weapon.

“[The fastball] plays in the zone, no doubt about it,” Boles said. “Especially with that breaking ball, how that’s starting to shape up a little bit. [The curveball]’s got better shape, a little bit better break, and it’s a quick hand with all three pitches.”

Two of his final three strikeouts of the game in the sixth inning came on that curveball, both looking. The final one was particularly impressive, as he struck out Phillies prospect Maikel Franco, one of Baseball America’s Top 50 prospects on their midseason list, on three straight curveballs, the first and third looking while the middle one induced an ugly-looking swing.

“I felt good with [the curveball],” Barnes said. “I’ve felt good with my secondary stuff for a good stretch now, so I’m going to keep riding that and focus on the fastball command for now.”

He gives a lot of the credit for his recent success to the improved secondary pitches.

“I think being able to throw those for strikes is one big component [of the turnaround],” the 6-foot-4 University of Connecticut product said. “I think I’ve just become more aware of when to use them, in certain counts and to which hitters.”

Boles didn’t disagree, but had a slightly different assessment of his resurgence.

“Recently in his outings, we’ve seen an uptick in velocity, but we’ve also seen the command,” he said. “We’ve seen some angle and some late life to his fastball, so he’s been really attacking the zone and he's been consistent.”

One thing that was evident in his start was his reliance on that fastball, a pitch that many outlets, including us at SoxProspects.com, said separated Barnes from the Red Sox’s other high-minors arms entering the season. Though he had some success with his secondaries, his pitch selection was still dominated by the heater. With it being such a strong pitch for him, it can be tricky to toe the line between succeeding with his explosive fastball and working on developing his other pitches in game action.

“Well, you have to [have a good pitch mix], especially with going through a lineup three or four times as a starter,” Boles said. “So you have to make sure that you get the mix right, but also you have to recognize what hitters are having trouble with on a particular night. But he does a good job with that and I think our catchers did a real nice job with that also.”

Barnes also preached the importance of continuing to work on his secondary pitches regularly. “It's one of those things that when I have a good feel for [my secondaries], it makes it a little easier,” he said. “Obviously, [I need to] keep throwing them in the bullpens, and just pick the right spots to use them in the games.”

Barnes has now exactly matched his innings total from last season at 113 1/3, but said his arm and body feel great at this late point in the season, even despite a late start to the season due to a sore shoulder. He has seen most of his rotation-mates make the jump up to the majors this season—indeed, the other four members of Pawtucket’s rotation when he was activated now comprise three-fifths of the Boston rotation and the club’s top option for spot starts, while two others have been briefly recalled as emergency relievers—and that has provided all the more motivation.

“We’re all trying to go out there and do the best we can to get up to Boston as fast as we can to help the team win,” he said. “When you’ve got somebody pushing you, it makes you work a little harder.”

With this recent stretch, he is putting his name back on the crowded list of pitchers that could help the team in the near future, be it this season or next, while building momentum heading into the offseason.

Photo credit: Matt Barnes by Kelly O'Connor

Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.