'He’s a warrior': Barlow battles to lock up win

May 27th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- The script looked all too familiar in the bottom of the eighth inning Thursday night at Target Field.

The Royals had a one-run lead, but reliever Joel Payamps entered and promptly allowed three consecutive singles to load the bases with no outs. It looked like they were on the verge of another blown-lead loss, of which they’ve suffered three in a row during their six-game losing streak entering Thursday.

put a stop to that.

The Kansas City reliever entered the eighth inning with the bases loaded and no outs, got out of the jam with no runs allowed and then threw a scoreless ninth for a two-inning, 41-pitch save in the Royals’ 3-2 series-opening win against the Twins.

“He’s a warrior for us,” said Whit Merrifield, who drove in the game-tying runs in the top of the eighth. “That situation in the eighth was pretty incredible, to come in and get out of that jam. We rode him again tonight. He’s just a stud.”

As Thursday’s game played out, it didn’t look like the Royals would turn to Barlow. Despite starter Daniel Lynch delivering a solid 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts, the offense was silent against Twins lefty Devin Smeltzer with just two hits logged across seven innings.

But the Royals strung hits together in the eighth, starting with Emmanuel Rivera’s one-out single and Ryan O’Hearn’s pinch-hit knock. Manager Mike Matheny immediately lifted O’Hearn for the speedier Dairon Blanco, and Merrifield quickly drove in the two runs with his 200th career double. Bobby Witt Jr. took care of the rest with a go-ahead double into the left-field gap.

"You hope to have that big hit -- that’s the thing that’s eluded us more than anything else,” Matheny said. “... The next thing you know, we’ve got an opportunity to walk away with a win.”

Not without some close calls, electric pitches and likely a few heart-stopping moments.

Barlow’s first pitch in the eighth was a curveball that spiked in the dirt in front of the plate, which catcher MJ Melendez jumped on to save a run from scoring on a wild pitch.

“MJ did an amazing job of blocking those,” Barlow said. “The first one, I was so worried about making sure it was down, that it was kind of too down. And it bounced, I think in front of the plate. He did an excellent job with that, and then I kind of had a gauge, like that was way too low. Usually it takes around one pitch, and then, ‘I need to make an adjustment.’”

Barlow went back to his curveball for a swinging strike, then threw Jose Miranda a mix of curves and sliders for a strikeout. The Twins pinch-hit contact-oriented lefty Nick Gordon with one out.

“It was more of a question of just, in general, contact,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Nick puts the ball in play. Barlow’s tough on everyone. It’s not like there’s, you know, an especially good matchup against a guy like that. He’s good against righties. He’s good against lefties.”

Barlow struck out Gordon with a curveball, and then he got Max Kepler to roll over a slider for a groundout.

“That’s what fires you up,” Witt said. “That’s something that maybe it can change the whole entire season or something, just get us going. So it was a lot of fun to see that.”

Barlow tried to stay level-headed, preparing for the ninth.

“That’s been what goes through my head from game-to-game,” Barlow said. “If I throw one inning, always be in the headspace, ‘Hey, I’m going to go two.’ Never taking yourself out of the game mentally until a coach comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, you’re down.’”

That mentality, as well as Barlow’s ability to spin the ball, has been what’s made the 29-year-old reliever so good over the past two seasons. Barlow has a 2.27 ERA as the Royals’ highest-leverage reliever since the start of 2021, and he ranks 11th among all relievers in WAR (2.0) in that span, according to Fangraphs.

The Royals rely on him in the big moments, and Thursday was no different.

Barlow grinded through the ninth, putting runners on the corners with two out. He was down 3-0 to Gio Urshela before throwing an 89.9 mph fastball in for a called strike -- velocity that was way down, Barlow said, because he wanted to locate the pitch rather than overthrow it. Urshela then grounded a slider to Witt, who lobbed it to second base for the force out and victory.

Barlow ended the night with 41 pitches, by far his season high, his fifth save of the season and the Royals back in the win column because of his heroics.

“His pitch count was way high,” Matheny said. “We’re going to have to keep watching him. But in those situations, we’ve got a chance to win a game. He’s our best. And we want our best out there.”