As Red Sox Near Playoffs, Are Matt Barnes’ Struggles Mental Or Physical?

'We'll keep working with him and hopefully we can get him back on track'

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Matt Barnes has physically returned from the COVID-19 related injured list after testing positive for the virus, a blow that came amid an uncharacteristic stretch of tough outings for the Red Sox closer. But with two appearances under his belt since returning to Boston, it seems the 31-year-old is still a ways away from the early-season form that earned him his first All-Star nod.

Barnes returned on Sept. 17, allowing a hit and a base on balls with two strikeouts. His line ended up on the stronger side, especially compared to where it had been before his stint on the COVID-19 IL, but it took him 28 pitches to get there — tying his second-most pitches in an outing this season.

He returned to the hill Wednesday and lasted just 1/3 of an inning, with one run, a hit and two walks. That run — in the sixth inning of a 12-5 defeat of the New York Mets — brought his ERA up to 3.88.

Barnes entered the All-Star break with a 2.68 ERA through 37 games, having only crossed the 2.00-threshold in that final game on July 4. In 19 games since, that figure is a whopping 7.07.

So, what’s going on? Red Sox manager Alex Cora, speaking to reporters before Friday’s game against the New York Yankees, laid out his concerns.

“I think velocity has to do with it,” Cora said. “We saw a few 92, 93 (mph) on the last one. The velocity, the gap between the fastball and obviously his off-speed pitches is not as big as early on in the season. We’ll keep working with him. He has a few things that he feels mechanically, he’s not there yet. But at the end of the day, he needs to get back to be aggressive, be aggressive in the strike zone, be ahead in the count. If he can do that, he’ll be back. I cannot tell you if it’s mental, but one thing for sure, attacking guys was a big part of what he was doing early in the season, and he’s not doing that right now.”

With the Red Sox on the verge of a playoff push, it’s more important now than ever that he finds his way again.

“We’ll keep working with him and hopefully we can get him back on track,” Cora said. “Because we do believe, obviously when he’s right, he’s one of the best relievers in the big leagues.”

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