Lott: Danny Barnes hopes to stick around after an impressive debut in Houston

[I’m pretty sure that’s him behind Happ! – Ed.]

Managers prefer to let a pitcher make his major-league debut in a blowout game. John Gibbons did not have that luxury with Danny Barnes.

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Two straight extra-inning games had depleted the Blue Jays bullpen. That was the only reason the club summoned Barnes, a seven-year farmhand, from Buffalo on Tuesday. When he arrived, Gibbons told him he would almost certainly pitch that night.

As it turned out, all he had to do was protect a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning against the top of the Astros’ batting order.

“I was very nervous, there’s no doubt about that,” Barnes said in a telephone interview from Houston. “I really can’t describe it. I was halfway to the mound and the stadium started spinning. I was like, ‘Oh, boy.’

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“Once I got out there and threw a few warmups, it was just another game. I was fine after that. But leading up to it, I had a lot going on emotionally.”

Just another game? Well, despite all that was going on, Barnes treated the Astros the same way he has treated minor-league opponents all season.

He faced four batters. He got ahead of all four. He allowed a hit to Jose Altuve, as everybody does, but he retired the other three, including two on strikeouts.

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Alex Bregman fanned on a fastball after watching a changeup. Carlos Correa ended the inning by whiffing on a changeup after fouling off a fastball.

That mix reflected a nudge Barnes received from his coaches this year: use your secondary pitches more to complement your fastball.

“The fastball’s been a swing-and-miss pitch for him,” said Gil Kim, the Blue Jays’ director of player development. “And I think you saw the other night, from a couple of changeups he threw in his debut, it’s a legit pitch. Correa swung and missed and walked away from the plate nodding. It was kind of like a tip of the cap.”

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Pitching like a veteran, the rookie set up Jason Grilli to nail down the one-run victory.

“That eighth inning was something special for that kid, and that should be the story of the game in my mind,” starter R.A. Dickey told reporters. “To come in and face those hitters, in that situation, one-run game, it was just phenomenal. I felt so happy for him.”

Barnes said he feels fortunate that his debut came in a high-stakes situation. In a blowout, he might have focused too much on being in the big leagues for the first time.

“When you come into a game like that, it’s just, ‘get three outs, let’s win the game.’ It helps you focus a little more,” he said.

 There’s no telling how long Barnes will stick with the Jays’ ever-evolving relief corps, but he certainly got management’s attention in his debut. His sensational work at two minor-league levels this season set him up for an opportunity he did not expect.

Barnes logged an ERA of 0.84 in 36 games at Double-A and Triple-A, with 61 strikeouts and only five walks in 53.1 innings. His WHIP was 0.51.

His path to the majors was anything but smooth. He started as a 35th-round draft pick in 2010. A rotator cuff injury and broken foot sidelined him along the way. He never rose above Double-A until this year, despite posting a 2.45 ERA in the minors.

Barnes, 26, was an economics major at Princeton, which is known more for cultivating scholars than baseball players. But he was convinced he could have it both ways.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Princeton so bad was because they had a really good track record of having guys play in the majors,” he said. “The coach there, Scott Bradley, is one of the best in the country.”

Six current major-leaguers played at Princeton for Bradley, a former big-league catcher. 

After the Jays made Barnes an afterthought draft pick in 2010, he finished his senior thesis on bus rides while playing for low-A Lansing and earned his degree.

He chose economics because he was good at math and enjoyed parsing statistics. He was also good at baseball. His thesis blended the two in a narrow examination of free agency.

“My thesis was that the team that developed that player has better information about him than other teams observing from the outside,” he said. “Assuming that, those teams should be able to make better decisions about signing people. They should see those players that sign back be more productive and have contracts that are more reflective of their production. I think the (research) results back that up.”

Barnes will need to get a few more innings under his belt before he can test his thesis on his own situation. Meanwhile, he is unwinding from a whirlwind week and trying to catch up on his correspondence.

“I’m starting to get there,” he said Thursday. “I think last night was actually the first night I got a full night’s sleep since I got the call to come up here.

“I have so many people I have to call back. It was unbelievable. I had 150 text messages and all these emails. These are all people that I’ve known and I want to respond to all of them because they’re all part of this. I didn’t get here by myself.”

He cannot pinpoint a catalyst for his breakthrough season, although he says better preparation – both physical and mental – has helped. In his seventh season, he has finally found a routine that suits him. And the Blue Jays new high-performance staff has helped him focus on pitching more aggressively, he says.

“They’ve helped with little things here and there, more on the mental side – not being afraid to attack hitters, getting after it right away, just focusing on what you can control,” he said.

Was that an issue for him before this year?

“It’s more like it was good before,” he said, “and now it’s great.”