While wins and losses may not be the most important factor in the Minors -- especially not in June -- it might have felt like a must-win scenario Thursday for Matt Barnes.
Boston's top right-handed prospect struck out half of the 18 batters he faced over five innings, holding Carolina to a run on a pair of hits as Class A Advanced Salem chipped away at Winston-Salem's division lead with a 4-3 win.
Did Barnes feel any pressure taking the mound en route to his third straight win?
"Not really," he said. "I'm just trying to go out there and pitch as normal, have a good outing, help the team as much as possible. There wasn't any added pressure, at least I didn't feel any."
Salem trails Winston-Salem in the hunt for the first-half Carolina League South title, which would secure a playoff berth later this year. The Red Sox need to win their three remaining games, but the Dash closes the half with four games at Wilmington, and Salem needs the Blue Rocks to win three out of four to have any chance of winning the division. In the event of a tie, the Red Sox would win the tiebreaker as a result of their 5-4-1 record in 10 games against Winston-Salem.
Wilmington pitched in Thursday with a 4-3 win over the Dash, while Barnes and the Red Sox held the Mudcats to six hits. With Winston-Salem's loss, Salem moved to within two games of first-place with three remaining.
Barnes believes his teammates can rally to win the division this week.
"We have a really good team here," he said. "It will take Wilmington winning a couple games and us continuing to win so we can win the first half, but we definitely have a good enough team to do that."
Salem had good odds with Barnes on the mound -- the 2011 first-rounder out of UConn owned the best ERA in the Minors (0.93 in 12 starts) coming into Thursday's start, although after giving up a run in the fifth, his combined ERA between Class A Greenville and Salem rose to 0.99.
Barnes, 21, allowed just one baserunner over the first four innings and began the game in a groove, striking out four straight batters between the first and second innings. Brandon Jacobs drew a one-out walk in the third, but was thrown out stealing to keep Barnes' in control.
"I felt good, my arm felt great today," he said. "I was able to get ahead early and mix pitches pretty well. The out pitches were probably the fastballs, I was able to spot a couple fastballs up and they helped me out chasing a few out of the zone. I mixed up the selection a little better tonight than in my last few starts, and I've been able to get ahead."
Barnes whiffed two more in a 1-2-3 fourth, but cracked in the fifth when Jesus Aguilar hit a leadoff double and Bo Greenwell singled him home with one out.
"[Aguilar] hit a first-pitch fastball, he put a good swing on it. The next guy grounded out and the third guy singled up the middle," said Barnes, who struck out Jake Lowery for his ninth strikeout and popped up Anthony Gallas, the 18th batter he faced, to end his night.
After going seven frames for a complete game in a double-header his last time out, Barnes admitted he would have liked to stuck around for the sixth at least.
"I obviously wanted to keep going, I didn't want to end on a note like that," he said. "The Red Sox have a plan for me, and I trust that plan and I trust what they're doing. As much as I would have liked to go out again, I trust the organization and kind of go out there and I'm just doing what I'm told."
Barnes' nine strikeouts were the most he's had since he fanned a dozen in his Class A Advanced debut May 5 against Winston-Salem. The 2011 Big East Pitcher of the Year at Connecticut hadn't allowed a run in his previous two starts and, until giving up the fifth-inning RBI single, had thrown 17 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
The Bethel, Conn., native ranks third in the Minors with 95 strikeouts this season after he set UConn's school record with 247 career strikeouts in 256 2/3 innings.
In his eight starts with Salem, the right-hander has held opponents to one earned run or fewer seven times. He's issued just six walks over 46 Carolina League frames and allowed one longball.
After a few weeks with Salem, the righty said he finally feels like he's adjusted to the batters.
"There's definitely a little change from the Sally League," he said. "But after facing teams a few times, I've found a good mix. I'm trying to keep hitters off balance, and the change has been a big pitch for me, it's something I've been developing the last few weeks. And I'm trying to get ahead with the fastball."
Salem gave Barnes a lead in the second when Heiker Meneses hit an RBI single and Sean Coyle came home on a fielder's choice. Meneses struck again with an RBI single in the fourth after Christian Vazquez's run-scoring double helped Salem build a 4-0 lead after four.
Jeremiah Bayer worked 1 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Barnes, allowing two hits, before Andrew Jones picked up his first save despite allowing a pair of runs over the final 2 1/3 innings.
Carolina starter Francisco Jimenez was charged with four runs on six hits and two walks over five innings to fall to 5-5 for the Mudcats.