Red Sox rookie reliever Daniel Bard has a 1.80 ERA in five appearances, but he's run into trouble when he's left his 97-mile-an-hour fastball up in the strike zone, getting himself into a handful of jams in the early going.
The Red Sox expect that Bard eventually will dominate the late innings. He just has to figure out how to harness his stuff and turn his velocity into outs.
"When you throw that hard, you can be off just a hair and it looks like you’re really off because you throw so hard," said Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley, who knows something about dominating the late innings. "It’s not easy to control that kind of gas. ...
"He’s got to get used to the adrenaline, which is something that doesn’t go away. You just get used to it, and it helps you. It makes you throw harder sometimes. But you’re going to have a tendency to get the ball up. He can get away with getting the ball up -- but everybody’s looking gas, right?"
Three lessons Bard has learned about pitching in the big leagues:
1. Big-league hitters know how to attack 99-mile-an-hour fastballs.
"The patience and the approach that they have, it's a big jump from Triple-A -- probably bigger than I expected. I've been fortunate enough to get outs, but I'm getting them in different ways than I'm accustomed to. There's a little more contact. In Triple-A, in the minor leagues, a lot of guys, they see my fastball and try to swing harder at it. That's the worst thing they can do. That works to my advantage in all ways.
"Big-league hitters face a lot of arms like mine almost on a daily basis, so their approach, I've noticed, is to just throw their hands at the ball. They shorten their swing and let the velocity do the work. It's a lot more effective than trying to swing hard. It's a better approach, and it just comes with them seeing more arms like mine. I'll take the outs however I can get them -- pop-up, line drive right at a guy, whatever it is -- but I'll try to make the adjustments as I go."
To wit: ESPN's Buster Olney produced a chart on Sunday of the 14 fastballs on Saturday that were clocked at 97 miles an hour or better. Six of those fastballs missed the strike zone. One was taken for a strike. Three were fouled off. Three were put into play; of those, only one led to an out. Only one 97-mile-an-hour fastball resulted in a swing and a miss.
And while Jonathan Papelbon wasn't on that list, the Fenway scoreboard and NESN radar gun clocked the fastball on which Omir Santos hit his game-winning home run at 97, too. That didn't do Papelbon any good.
2. There's a good way and a bad way to put a little extra on a pitch.
"There are going to be pitches when you need to reach back for a little more on the fastball, maybe try to throw that put-away breaking ball, where you're going to try to put a little more on the pitch. The difference between letting it fly when it ends up way up out of the zone or as a really good pitch is where you try to get that extra two or three miles an hour.
"If you try to get it out front, if you try to get it, as they say, out of the glove, you try to speed it up right out of the glove, and your front side is going to fly open. That's what gets you out of whack. If you can focus on getting it from (the shoulder) to the release point, that's where you get the good extra two or three miles an hour and not the bad one that soars high."
Going back to Saturday: The fastball Papelbon threw to Santos was supposed to be down and away and instead was up and over the middle.
3. It's easier to start off with the ball down in the zone and go up the ladder on certain pitches than the other way around.
"The thing I've been working on for the last week or so, and it starts in the bullpen when I start getting loose, is starting below the knees. It's a lot easier to start there and throw 10 pitches there and then work your way up when you need to rather than throw your first 10 belt-high and work down. That's very tough to do. It's a lot easier to start down and come up. That's what I'm learning."