Matt Barnes found himself in an uncharacteristic stretch after the MLB All-Star break. Things went from bad to worse when he tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved to the virus-related injured list on Aug. 30.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Tuesday that Barnes could be activated in time for the weekend as Boston hosts the Baltimore Orioles. In the meantime, the All-Star closer made a pair of rehab starts in the minors.
Barnes threw a hitless inning with Triple-A Worcester on Sunday, then allowed two runs on two hits in an inning of work for Double-A Portland on Wednesday. He threw 13 of his 18 pitches for strikes and while the line doesn’t necessarily indicate a positive outing, Barnes felt it was.
“That’s the best I’ve felt on a mound in a month,” Barnes told reporters after the game, as shared by WTNH Channel 8. “I gave up a couple hits, couple runs but that’s by far the best I’ve felt on a mound in a month. So I’m happy with it.”
Barnes said he “never got terrible” amid his bout with COVID-19 and at worst, it was “like a bad cold,” according to the Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore.
While Barnes may be back at Fenway Park for this weekend’s series, exactly what role he will play moving forward is unclear. After all, even before his COVID-19 diagnosis, Cora wasn’t committed to the 31-year-old getting the ball for the final outs.
In his last 10 outings (between Aug. 7 and Aug. 29), Barnes posted a 15.88 ERA with 10 earned runs in 5 2/3 innings of work — certainly a far cry from the 2.25 ERA he had through his first 44 appearances.
The bullpen has really pulled itself together during his absence. For proof, just look at the team’s most recent road trip, which saw relievers combine to post a miniscule 0.68 ERA over 26 1/3 innings. Adam Ottavino and Garrett Whitlock largely have split closer duties in Barnes’ absence.
Boston needs to be at its best over the final stretch of the regular season if it wants to secure a playoff berth — and the way things have trended as the team tries to find its identity on the other side of its COVID outbreak, that may continue to be without Barnes in the closer role.