Austin Barnes Give the Dodgers an Unlikely Lift at the Plate

Pity the backup catcher, so often the forgotten man in late October. He owes his roster spot to his competence at a peculiar position, often summoned only in case of an injury to the starter. That tends to keep him tied to the bench, rarely used as a pinch-hitter.

In rare cases, fortune smiles on the backup. In 2015, Drew Butera of the Kansas City Royals saw one half-inning of action, at the very end of the clinching game against the Mets at Citi Field. The Royals’ starter, the indomitable Salvador Perez, had been removed for a pinch-runner, leaving Butera to call the pitch that struck out Wilmer Flores for the title.

“I knew that if we could just locate in, he wouldn’t have a chance,” Butera said wistfully, a few years later. “And he didn’t.”

Austin Barnes of the Los Angeles Dodgers has many more memories to consider. While at least a dozen backup catchers in the last 15 years never got to play at all — remember Juan Centeno of the 2017 Houston Astros? Tony Cruz of the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals? Eli Whiteside of the 2010 San Francisco Giants? — Barnes has been a regular behind the plate in this World Series.

In the Dodgers’ 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 on Friday that put Los Angeles ahead, two games to one, Barnes had a run-scoring sacrifice bunt and a home run. The last player with that unusual pairing in a World Series game was Hector Lopez for the Yankees in their clincher at Cincinnati in 1961.

“Probably the homer,” Barnes said, when asked which would stand out more to him, years from now. “That’s a cool little stat, but it’s not easy to barrel a ball up against all these good pitchers.”

Barnes hit just one homer in the regular season and has a meager .356 career slugging percentage. But the Dodgers have started him at catcher in 13 of their 15 World Series games under Manager Dave Roberts — all seven against Houston in 2017, four of five against Boston in 2018 and two of three so far against the Rays.

The usual starting catcher, Will Smith, has shifted to designated hitter this series in the games started by Barnes, who has guided Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler to victories. Both pitchers allowed one run in six innings, with one walk and no more than three hits.

“I just think his ability to call a game, to see the game from behind home plate, his ability to receive — and he gives you a tough at-bat,” Roberts said, explaining his faith in Barnes. “We have two very good catchers in Will and Austin, but it just shows how much we trust him in big games and he’s done it for us time and time again.”

Barnes, 30, is a six-year veteran who averaged 58 starts per season from 2017 through 2019. He started more often in this shortened regular season — 27 of the Dodgers’ 60 games — partly because of an injury to Smith in August. Barnes hit .244 but proved his effectiveness by getting 52.8 percent of borderline pitches called for strikes, according to Statcast. That ranked Barnes third of 62 all major league catchers, while Smith (44.2 percent) ranked 58th.

The Dodgers acquired Barnes in a trade with Miami in December 2014, two months after Andrew Friedman took over Los Angeles’s baseball operations. Barnes had not played above Class AA then, but had recently learned to frame pitches with the help of Hector Rabago, then a catching coach in the Yankees’ farm system who, like Barnes, had attended Riverside Poly High School in California.

“He kind of showed me some stuff I didn’t really believe in at the time,” Barnes said. “But the Yankees were really ahead of everybody in that department, and he showed me a lot of stuff that translated into more strikes.”

For the Dodgers, that skill was important enough to put Yasmani Grandal, a much more dangerous hitter, on the bench for most of their last two World Series. Grandal made only 10 plate appearances in those series, while Barnes had 37. He hit miserably (4 for 23 against the Astros, 0 for 11 against Boston), and was left off the playoff roster last fall, when the Dodgers lost a division series to Washington.

“You still got those nerves for the guys and obviously want them to win,” said Barnes, whose average had dipped to .203 last season. “It’s nice to be in these games to have a little bit of control behind the plate.”

Barnes was 4 for 40 in his World Series career when he came to bat against Charlie Morton in the fourth inning of Game 3, with runners at the corners and one out. If Barnes bunted toward the slow-footed Ji-Man Choi at first base, Roberts said, he believed Cody Bellinger could score from third, with Joc Pederson taking second.

That is just how it played out, and Mookie Betts followed by driving in Pederson to give the Dodgers a 5-1 lead. That was plenty of support for Buehler, who struck out 10 with a fastball/curveball mix that Barnes said might have been the best he had ever seen from him.

Buehler said he is equally comfortable with Barnes or Smith, but added that he admired Barnes’s nearly annual transformation into a mainstay of October.

“He receives the ball well, he prepares well,” Buehler said. “To have the year he had last year offensively, and then every year in the playoffs it seems like he’s a different guy, he’s a tough dude and we’re lucky to have him.”

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