PORTLAND – The morning of Dec. 14, before he heard about the shooting rampage, Matt Barnes enjoyed a breakfast sandwich while visiting friends at his old school, the University of Connecticut.

“I was about to go home,” Barnes said. “Then we looked up at the TV and it said ‘school shooting in Newtown.’ I didn’t think anything of it.

“I thought maybe some idiot brought a gun to high school and nothing happened.”

More news continued to come in. More details.

“As I heard more and more ” Barnes paused while trying to relay the feeling.

“You can’t use words to describe it. I mean that elementary school is 10 minutes from my house. I have friends who were teaching in the school at the time of the shooting. It was unbelievable — in a sense, I didn’t believe it.”

But it happened, the indescribable tragedy of a gunman loose in Sandy Hook Elementary School in idealistic Newtown. Twenty children and eight adults died, including the shooter.

Barnes, 22, now a Portland Sea Dogs starting pitcher, is from nearby Bethel, Conn. Barnes is an incredible baseball talent. His promotion to Portland is his next step toward the big leagues.

But on that Dec. 14 day, Barnes was not the confident pitcher, but the confused neighbor.

“Newtown is a great area,” Barnes said. “I played baseball there, played against their teams for years. I know a bunch of people from Newtown. It’s a gorgeous town. Nice, peaceful.

“One of those places where things like that aren’t supposed to happen.

“It hit home. If something like that happens in maybe California, you feel for those people, but it’s different if it’s 3,000 miles away. You can only take in what you hear on the news.

“But when it’s 10 minutes from you, and your school system goes in complete lockdown, you’re in a little disbelief.”

Barnes wanted to help, but didn’t know how. Baseball became a way. Barnes joined other Connecticut residents — Red Sox pitchers Craig Breslow and Andrew Bailey and former Sox manager Bobby Valentine — and put on a baseball clinic for the schoolchildren of Newtown.

Barnes later took part in another clinic with the University of Connecticut staff.

No one can make sense of, or offer resolution to, such a tragedy. But with baseball, Barnes could bring a smile.

By February, it was time for Barnes to go back to work. He left for Fort Myers, Fla. and minor league spring training.

If all goes according to projections, Barnes could be in major league spring training camp by next year.

A first-round draft pick of the Red Sox in 2011, Barnes looked dominating at times in Class A ball in 2012, although he fatigued at the end.

“You can’t make excuses. But you hit that wall, pitching every five days, with bullpens and everything, my body got tired,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t used to going through that routine for seven months.”

This offseason, Barnes worked harder to prepare his body. And he believes he has a better idea of how to pace himself through the season.

Expectations are no guarantee. Barnes’ Portland teammate, Anthony Ranaudo, can attest to that. Ranaudo entered last season as Boston’s top pitching prospect, but a series of injuries held him back in 2012.

Now it is Barnes who is considered the best Red Sox pitching prospect. Baseball America ranked him as Boston’s No. 3 overall prospect, behind Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr.

“I’ve been very impressed the times I watched him pitch,” said Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper. “Power body, power arm, intelligent. There was a lot to like about the stuff and execution.”

Barnes, 6-foot-4, has a mid-90s fastball that can hit 98 mph, a very good curveball and a developing changeup.

He pitched for Bethel High and, after going undrafted, attended UConn on scholarship. In his junior year, Barnes’ starts became must-see events for pro scouts.

Boston took him with the 19th overall draft pick and gave him a $1.5 million signing bonus.

Last year, Barnes was 2-0 with a 0.34 in low Class A Greenville in five starts before jumping to advanced Class A Salem (5-5, 3.58). For the year, he struck out 133 in 119 innings, with 29 walks.

Now Barnes is in Double-A, with his Sea Dogs debut Monday night against Reading.

He knows, of course, how to focus on fastballs and off-speed pitches. But away from the game, Barnes’ thoughts occasionally drift back to Dec. 14.

“A terrible tragedy struck close to home,” Barnes wrote on his Twitter account. “Continue to pray for them and never forget those angels we lost that day.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases