MLB: Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves

Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes appears to be the front-runner to be the team’s closer in 2021.

Matt Barnes continues to make a strong case to open the 2021 season as Boston’s closer.

The Red Sox right-hander pitched a perfect ninth inning, striking out two in the Red Sox’s 9-4 loss to the Pirates at JetBlue Park on Sunday. He has hurled 4 1\3 scoreless innings (four outings) in Grapefruit League action, allowing one hit and two walks while striking out eight.

“Good fastball,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “This looks like his best fastball in last few years. Last year, as you know, his velocity was down. He’s been working hard to clean his delivery — more direct to the plate. And he’s been able to do that throughout.”

Cora confirmed Barnes has been throwing a split-fingered fastball more often this spring. And it complements his fastball up in the zone and breaking ball down.

“To have a different look, not only for lefties, I think for righties, too,” Cora said. “It’s a good pitch. He threw it a few times throughout the years. In ‘19, he tried it. I don’t know if it was more of a changeup (then). It’s something he always talks about. He’s looking for ways to improve. And the fact that he’s been using it more in spring training is a good sign.”

Cora has yet to name his closer. He has narrowed it down to Barnes and Adam Ottavino, who allowed one unearned run and one hit in 1 inning Sunday.

Ottavino also has thrown 4 1\3 innings (four outings), allowing one unearned run, five hits and one walk while striking out four.

“There’s no rush,” Cora said about selecting a closer. “They know it. Right now they’re working on their craft. Otta pitched the ninth inning one day. Barnsey did today. It was different preparation for both of them. But we’re comfortable with the way they’re throwing the ball.”

Pivetta struggles

Red Sox right-hander Nick Pivetta allowed three earned runs in his first three Grapefruit League starts (9 innings). But he allowed six runs (all earned), six hits and three walks in 4 innings against the Pirates on Sunday. He struck out three.

“I didn’t have very good fastball command to lead off. It wasn’t the best,” Pivetta said. “Got behind a lot of guys. It’s never fun to pitch behind (in the count). So that was a bit of a negative today but made some good pitches, got some weak contact. They just fell through the shift here and there. Just looking forward to bounce back next start.”

Cora said: “He’s got good stuff, but he fell behind hitters. … Stuff-wise, he’s still there.”

Pivetta is expected to receive two more spring training starts.

“I think everybody’s ready to get out of here and move into the season,” Pivetta said.

Whitlock impresses

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom appeared on the NESN game broadcast and raved about 24-year-old right-hander Garrett Whitlock, who has allowed just one run, eight hits and no walks while striking out 12 in 9 innings.

Boston selected Whitlock in December’s Rule 5 Draft from the Yankees. He’s a lock to make the 26-man roster.

“You could not ask for a Rule 5 pick to come in here and make a better impression,” Bloom said. “Obviously the stuff has been there, which coming off of Tommy John surgery and so many unknowns with that and the pandemic, it’s not a given. And it’s been great to see. His secondary stuff as spring training has gone on has come more and more into play. His breaking ball has played and he’s got some good empty swings against left-handed hitters with that. His changeup has looked better and better as the spring has rolled on. And he has been relentless in attacking the strike zone with some of that sinking life he’s got down and then (throwing) the four-seamer up late in counts for swings and misses. It’s really been fun to watch.”

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