Sep. 23—The past two years have been a long and bumpy road for Matt Barnes.
The veteran Red Sox reliever got off to a career-best start in 2021, earning All-Star honors and a two-year, $14.75 million contract extension. Almost immediately after the ink was dry Barnes' performance cratered, and by October he wasn't even included on the Red Sox initial playoff roster.
Barnes' struggles continued once the new season began, and eventually he was shut down with right shoulder inflammation after posting a ghastly 7.94 ERA through the season's first two months.
It looked like Barnes' days with the Red Sox were over, but after two months on the shelf a funny thing happened.
Barnes became indispensable again.
Since returning from the injured list Barnes has been Boston's best and most reliable reliever. In 20 appearances since Aug. 4 he's posted a 1.93 ERA over 18.2 innings, striking out 18 while walking just six.
He's also tallied three saves and four holds, and over the past month he's been used exclusively in the eighth and ninth innings, indicating that he's once again earned Alex Cora's trust as a high-leverage arm.
"We're going to keep using him that way," Cora said last week. "He's done a good job for us, he's been consistent and he's willing to keep going out there. It really doesn't matter if he's fatigued or whatever, he's missed this game for a while and he's proving to a lot of people that he's capable of being a big league pitcher and can contribute."
Barnes' improved numbers are backed up by metrics far more reminiscent of his dominant stuff from early 2021. His fastball velocity in particular has noticeably ticked up, averaging close to 96 mph over his last four outings dating back to Sept. 13 against the New York Yankees.
"Everyone talks about the breaking ball but I think the fastball is the most important thing for him," Cora said the following afternoon. "Yesterday he showed probably his fastball since he came off the IL, the best fastball since that trip to Toronto last year. Good carry, good location, the breaking ball will always play but the fastball is good."
The reference to Toronto is significant, because that's where everything fell apart for Barnes last season. Over a three-game stretch Barnes gave up two game-winning home runs and nearly allowed a third, and his disintegration from that point on has been a major reason for the bullpen's struggles ever since.
But now with big changes coming in the offseason, Barnes once again has a chance to be part of the solution.