Swallows’ Barnette adapting to new role


Staff Writer

In his two-plus seasons in Japan, Tony Barnette has gone from being a starter, to released, to re-signed, to a reliever, and finally a closer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Not that he’s having an identity crisis or anything.

“If I could’ve, I’d be 6’7″ (200 cm) with a killer J,” Barnette joked on Saturday at Tokyo Dome.

Barnette is a huge basketball fan who also happens to be quite adept at striking people out. So even though he never quite made it to 200 cm (he’s 188, and the jury’s still out on the jumper), baseball has worked out quite nicely for him.

Even if things didn’t look so rosy in 2010, when the Swallows cut him after he finished 4-5 with a 5.99 ERA.

Barnette laughs at the memory now, mostly because it wasn’t long before Yakult came calling again, during that same offseason actually, with the intention of re-signing him and putting him in the bullpen.

The move worked out well for both sides. Barnette, who racked up 22 holds, two saves and a 2.68 ERA in 2011, found a new comfort zone as a reliever that he didn’t have as a starter — he jokingly says having a short attention span probably makes him better suited for pitching out of the bullpen — and the Swallows got a capable set-up man for closer Lim Chang Yong.

Barnette was given another new role this year, moving into the closer’s spot with Lim working his way back from injuries.

But if Barnette was meant to just keep the seat warm for Lim, someone forget to tell him. He’s thriving in the role, and his 17 saves are the second-most in Japan, behind only Hitoki Iwase’s 23 for the Chunichi Dragons.

“When they brought me back last year, obviously I was given a second life,” Barnette said. “When they decided to put me in the bullpen, I made a knee-jerk decision to say I’ve gotta change everything about the way I do everything.”

Barnette worked with one of the team’s coaches, Tomohito Ito, almost daily to fine-tune his approach and spent time with Ryuji Aikawa and the rest of the Yakult catchers until everyone was confident they had come up with a gameplan that worked.

“We pretty quickly discovered my new identity in the bullpen and kind of found out what I was about, what kind of stuff was going to work for me, and it came together pretty quickly, he said. “I was very happy it came together so quickly and I’ve been successful.”

While Barnette is coming into his own in his new position, an old fire still burns.

With the NBA Finals having just wrapped up, basketball was on the reliever’s mind Saturday.

If he’d never picked up a baseball, Barnette says basketball would’ve been his sport of choice. He played as a kid, saying he was small, quick and adept at playing point guard, at least until a junior high growth spurt left him a “tall, skinny kid,” too tall to play the point and not big enough to be a forward.

He traded in his sneakers for baseball spikes for good back in the 10th grade, but still harbors an affinity for the sport and was tuned in to the championship series between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.

“It wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be,” Barnette said. “I mean, five games and done? The Heat crushed. They came out and just played better. They made the right adjustments, they had the right defensive schemes and when it came to offense, the Sonics couldn’t stop them.”

Barnette said Sonics, when of course he meant Thunder. A slip of the tongue that’s forgivable for a native of a Pacific Northwest. Having grown up in Federal Way, Washington, his family moved there from Anchorage, Alaska, when he was a child, Barnette was a rabid Seattle SuperSonics fan growing up, and was sad to see the franchise, which called Seattle home for 41 years and won an NBA title there in 1979, leave for Oklahoma City in 2008.

“I was in Arizona at the time (in college),” Barnette said. “It sucked, because I grew up on Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, the ‘Glove’ and ‘Reign Man,’ Detlef Schrempf, Nate McMillian, Kendell Gill, all those dudes. I grew up a Sonics fan, I love the Sonics. Back in ’95, that was when the NBA was so good. Back in the mid-90’s the NBA couldn’t have been better.

“I was sad to see them go, I loved going to KeyArena. Sonics games were fun, but you know, it’s business. That’s just what it came down to, the business side of it.”

Sonics or no, Barnette is focused on helping the Swallows bounce back from a tough interleague campaign in hopes of steering the Birds toward a CL pennant.

Then maybe there will be time to work on that jumper.