NEW YORK -- Red Sox pitching prospect Matt Barnes was at the MLB Fan Cave on Friday, wanting to experience Major League Baseball's 15,000-square-foot playland with his season over. Meanwhile, marquee players in pennant races were around Barnes: Nick Swisher of the Yankees taping a commercial downstairs, and Evan Longoria of the Rays outside on the sidewalk giving free pizza to fans.
Barnes admired "how big leaguers go about their business off the field," but what he wants most is to be in that setting of a meaningful American League pennant race at this time of year -- and as soon as possible. The Red Sox are in an unaccustomed spoiler role with elimination looming, and Barnes said he hopes to have an "impact" on the parent club in some way in 2013.
"Anybody in the organization wants to get to that big league squad and help them as soon as possible; I'm in the same boat," Barnes said. "I want to do as much as I can next year, and maybe be able to impact the team next year.
"My goal is to control what I can control, and work as hard as I can and do as much as I can, to hopefully get to that point where I can help the big league team get back to contending for that AL East championship and getting to the playoffs and hoping to get to the World Series."
If you're a Red Sox fan, that is probably what you want to hear right now from the pipeline -- a top prospect who wants pennant-race baseball fast, quotes George Brett and talks introspectively about ways he can improve himself.
And this is coming from a pitcher who grew up rooting for the Yankees.
"I'd be sad to oppose New York City, but I look forward to the day I play for the Red Sox," Barnes said. "When I go out there, there's no 'What are the Yankees doing?' I want to help this team win. I want to get to the big leagues and help the Red Sox win."
Barnes is not far off. The Red Sox made him their first-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Connecticut, at 19th overall. The big right-hander reaches around 96 mph with his fastball and maintains that velocity deep into his starts.
This season, Barnes got off to a fast start with Class A Greenville and the Red Sox promoted him to Class A Advanced Salem after he gave up just one run in 26 2/3 innings with the Drive. The righty pitched well for Salem as well, striking out more than nine batters per nine innings, but he said on Friday that his first pro year was definitely a learning experience.
"I enjoyed it a lot," Barnes said. "The first half of the season went really well for me. Things were working great, and then, as people described to me, you kind of hit the second-half length, and it gets kind of rough. You hit some bumps in the road, some ups and downs. It's more of a struggle to get through. Most first-year players hit that, and I was one of the guys who did it, and you just kind of learn how to deal with failure a little bit better, and it helps you kind of improve things about your game, to get to that next level."
What specifically did Barnes learn the most?
"I learned how to pitch," he said. "Up until this year, you have to pitch, but I could more 'throw' and get away with it. This year, my first year, I had to learn the importance of that third pitch and really be able to command everything in any count, because the hitters get better as you move up. The strike zone gets smaller."
Barnes said the changeup was the third pitch he added in 2012, but soon enough, it became his second-best weapon.
"I had a little struggle commanding the curveball," Barnes explained. "So it went from my third pitch to my second pitch, and I absolutely love it now."
What led to his fast start this season, Barnes said, was the commitment he made during his workout regimen last offseason. He said he plans to do the same thing in the coming months.
"Last year, I really got after it in the weight room, and I really want to do that again," Barnes said. "I think I need to work a little harder in-season to maintain that so I can end the way I started. I'm just looking forward to getting into the offseason and working as hard as possible to get ready to come into Spring Training and hopefully compete for the Double-A team."
Maybe the highlight of 2012 for Barnes was his experience playing for Brett's U.S. Team in a blowout victory over the World Team before a sellout crowd in the XM All-Star Futures Game on July 8 in Kansas City.
"The Futures Game was unbelievable," Barnes said. "First off, I got to meet up with my buddy Mike Olt, who I played with at UConn and who is now in the big leagues with the Rangers -- great guy. [I loved] just being able to be there and interact with some of the guys from my Draft class, and play and meet the guys who I've heard about in various places.
"And then having George Brett as my coach was an absolute treat. Just being to be talk to him and see his mindset about the game of baseball, even after he's been out of the game for a few years. It was unbelievable being able to play in front of 40,000 people and on national television. I guess it was really the first taste of what it's like to be a big leaguer. That just gives you that much extra motivation to work hard, do that extra rep, to get to that next level."
Barnes said Brett left one particular impression upon him.
"Play the game 100 percent every single time out and never take the game for granted," Barnes said. "After listening to a pregame speech from him and hearing that, it kind of tells you why he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a 13-time All-Star -- just his intensity about the game and giving 100 percent all the time."
Now there's a Matt Barnes signature on the autograph wall of the Fan Cave, on the same wall as the one Brett signed this summer.
"It's amazing," Barnes said of the Fan Cave. "I've heard a lot about it, seen it on TV. To get here and see it in person, it's amazing. I can see why fans love it and see why people love coming here to have a good time."