PORTLAND – Matt Barnes, the top-rated pitching prospect in the Boston Red Sox minor league system, made his Double-A debut Monday night at Hadlock Field.

“I liked what I saw,” said Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper. “That’s electric stuff.”

Barnes, however, got short-circuited by an organizational rule designed to protect young arms: If a starter throws more than 30 pitches in one inning, he’s done for the game.

So although Barnes struck out the side in the first inning, he was a spectator for the rest of the game.

The Sea Dogs rallied from a three-run deficit to tie before Reading won 7-4 on the strength of a three-run ninth in the opener of their three-game Eastern League series.

“Obviously, you’re frustrated,” said Barnes, who started out strikeout, walk, strikeout and froze Reading clean-up hitter Jim Murphy on a two-strike curve very close to the outside corner. It was called a ball, however, and Murphy eventually singled to drive in a run.

“That’s not how you draw up your first one,” Barnes said, “but overall I can’t be too upset. … If I have stuff like that all year, I think it’ll be pretty good.”

The fifth batter, Tyler Henson, drove a pitch to the gap that barely eluded a diving attempt by left fielder Ryan Dent and resulted in a triple and a 2-0 Reading lead. Barnes stranded Henson with another strikeout, but by then the pitch count was up to 33.

“This time of year,” said Manager Kevin Boles, “we’re going to err on the side of caution.”

Reliever Keith Crouch kept the Sea Dogs close by scattering five hits through four innings, with the only damage coming from a Henson home run to lead off the fourth.

Reading built the lead to 4-1 before shortstop Stephen Drew, who had been 1 for 12 in his rehabilitation stint from the Red Sox, launched a change-up into the second-tier Sea Dogs bullpen in right- center in the sixth. Earlier, Drew made a sparkling defensive play by charging in to backhand a grounder and throwing on the run for the out at first.

“I had a lot of fun here,” Drew said of his four games with the Sea Dogs. “I felt great and ready to go (to Boston). I’m excited to go back up there.”

Travis Shaw and Michael Almanzar followed Drew’s homer with consecutive doubles to make it 4-3 and chase Reading starter Brody Colvin.

Phils reliever Hector Neris retired the first four Dogs but ran into trouble in the seventh. Two-out singles by Shannon Wilkerson and Xander Bogaerts sandwiched around a balk pulled Portland into a 4-4 tie. Neris walked Drew and Shaw to load the bases before striking out the red-hot Almanzar to end the inning.

“That’s a big strikeout on a big guy in their lineup,” said Reading Manager Dusty Wathan of Almanzar, who doubled twice Monday night after homering twice on Sunday. “Neris, after the balk and giving up the single, I thought he got a little flustered. But … you want to leave him out there and see what he can do, see how he’s going to react, and give him a chance to get out of it himself.”

Pinch-hitter Miguel Abreu opened the ninth with a single. A popped bunt failed to advance the runner, but Anthony Hewitt and Albert Cartwright delivered ground-ball singles to make it 5-4 and Edgar Duran sealed the deal with a two-run homer to right.

NOTES: Wathan, a Sea Dogs alumnus from their teal-tinted Marlins era, brought his family to the Congress Street apartment where he lived with his wife, Heidi, during the 2001 season. Their daughter, Elle, was born that April.

“Good memories here,” said Wathan, in his second season as Reading skipper. “It’s always good to come back.”

Elle, who turns 12 on Thursday, introduced Portland to her siblings: Huck (10), Maeve (7) and Gus (3). They live in Charlotte, N.C., and are joining dad during school vacation week.

Wathan isn’t the only old friend visiting Hadlock this week. Reading’s hitting coach is former Sea Dogs manager Frank Cacciatore, who called Portland home in 1999.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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