Jays reliever Danny Barnes pitches his way into conversation

Blue Jays reliever Danny Barnes has posted a 2.30 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 2017 while forcing his way into high-leverage situations.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star) | Order this photo  

BOSTON —The call to the bullpen for Blue Jays reliever Danny Barnes came at a crucial moment in Tuesday’s 15-inning loss to the Boston Red Sox.

The game was tied 3-3 in the ninth inning. Lefty Aaron Loup had recorded the first two outs, but manager John Gibbons turned to the 27-year-old right-hander to face Boston leadoff hitter Mookie Betts. The right-fielder was batting .412 against the Jays this year, with three home runs, as he stepped into the box.

But none of his hits had come against Barnes, who had limited Betts to a groundout and pair of infield pop-ups in their previous meetings. Barnes went in with a simple plan: Keep the ball away from a hitter who is so quick inside.

He executed. Betts popped out to Josh Donaldson in foul territory on a four-seam fastball, keeping Toronto in the game.

“He’s one of the best hitters in the league; I don’t understand why he keeps doing it off me,” said Barnes, who pitched 1 1/3 innings and notched a pair of strikeouts Tuesday.

Betts isn’t the only player to suffer that fate against Barnes, who currently owns one of the highest pop-up rates in baseball. That’s one of the reasons a recent article on the baseball analytics site Fangraphs dubbed Barnes the “sneakiest reliever upgrade on the market this summer.”

The article, by Dave Cameron, argues that Barnes’ performance so far this season, coupled with his rookie paycheque and the fact that he’s not eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season, should draw eyes from clubs looking to bulk up their bullpens heading into the final stretch.

The fact that he is even part of such chatter is a mark of how high Barnes’ stock has risen since the beginning of the season. After making his big-league debut with the Blue Jays late last summer, the New York native wasn’t on the 25-man roster for the season opener this year.

That he wasn’t included wasn’t even all that surprising to Barnes; he had options and he knew he would be competing for a spot, anyways.

Now, things have changed.

“You can tell how you’re being used and stuff, what innings you’re going to pitch,” he said about his rising stock within his current club. “It’s important because if you’re a guy that’s going to come in late in a game or in a situation in the middle of the game where there’s runners on, the game’s on the line, you need to be able to foresee that.”

After being called up for the first time in April, Barnes made the trip between Toronto and Buffalo on a couple of occasions. But he has been a mainstay in the Blue Jays’ bullpen since early May, pitching 43 innings heading into Tuesday with a 2.30 ERA.

“You look around the league, a lot of guys that do well still get optioned, so just being able to be here every day and just learn what it’s like to be a guy that might pitch late in the game, you get that experience,” he said. “All the stuff you have to do to stay healthy, I’m learning how to do that. Just that opportunity is huge for my future because I know a lot of guys don’t even get that chance. It means everything to me.”

Barnes doesn’t believe he’s a trade candidate, but with the likes of Ryan Tepera, Joe Biagini, Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna in the bullpen with him, it’s an area in which the Blue Jays have room to spare. Still, until the July 31 trade deadline comes and goes, he won’t be paying attention to the headlines.

“You could get down in a hole looking at stuff all day.”


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