Saturday, August 1, 2009

Daniel Bard starting to dominate

Trivia answer: Elvis Andrus, Billy Butler, Orlando Cabrera and Ryan Sweeney.

Trivia question: Who are the only hitters to have recorded hits against Daniel Bard since July 1?

With his scoreless inning on Saturday night against the Orioles, the Red Sox reliever now has not allowed an earned run in his last 14 innings -- a span that dates back more than a month. He has struck out 23 in those 14 innings. He has walked no one. He has allowed only those four hits. (One of those, even, was only an infield hit.)

He's done everything the Red Sox ever could have dreamed -- and more. He's become more exciting than Jonathan Papelbon. He's become more untouchable than Clay Buchholz. He's become perhaps the best relief pitcher the Red Sox have.

His game-ending strikeout of Melvin Mora epitomized the type of pitcher he's become. He actually missed with two of his first three pitches -- a 99-mile-an-hour fastball sailed inside, and he left a slider above the letters. But he threw a 2-1 fastball almost right down the middle, 98 miles an hour, and Mora swung right threw it. He then threw an 82-mile-an-hour slider, as nasty a breaking pitch as you'll ever be, that wound up in almost exactly the same spot. Mora swung right through that, too. Game over.

The big difference lately has been that breaking ball, a hard slider that pitching coach John Farrell tweaked for him in late May so he could throw it with a little more velocity. The evolution of that breaking ball, though, is a process that has taken years. In the spirit of celebrating the pitcher whose relief appearances have become the most exciting thing about watching Red Sox games, here's a look back at a story that appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader in late May, right when he was starting to put it all together:


Plenty of baseball players have an out-of-body experience upon reaching the major leagues. Daniel Bard had his out-of-body experience two years ago at Single-A.

Just two weeks removed from his big-league debut, Bard has a 1.80 ERA in four appearances and is regularly hitting 97 miles an hour on stadium radar guns. If the wildest dreams of the Red Sox player development department come true, he could grow quickly into one of the league’s most dominant late-inning relief pitchers.

Two years ago, though, he couldn’t get outs at the lowest levels of the minor leagues.

“I was at 90 to 93 with a crappy curveball and a changeup I couldn’t locate,” said Bard, one of the most electric arms to emerge from the Red Sox system in years. “There were times I went out there and felt like I was pitching with someone else’s mechanics and someone else’s repertoire.”

The then-starting pitcher had performed well in three years of college baseball but never quite dominated the way many expected him to dominate. He had a 3.47 ERA as a junior and pitched North Carolina to the College World Series, but he still endured an occasional disaster. He allowed nine earned runs in 5 1/3 innings in one March start, in fact, and issued six walks in 3 2/3 innings a week after that.

But the raw stuff still was there. The results just weren’t. The Red Sox, then, drafted Bard in the first round and set about trying to turn all that potential into an elite big-league pitcher. They changed the arm slot in his delivery, shifting it from three-quarters to a pure over-the-top delivery. They shelved his slider and taught him a 12-to-6 curveball, a better fit for his new delivery.

It only made everything worse. He had a 10.12 ERA in five starts at Single-A Lancaster in 2007, and he had a 6.42 ERA in 17 starts at Single-A Greenville. He walked far more hitters (78) than he struck out (49). He even threw 27 wild pitches.

“There were two-month stretches there where I didn’t even look at my stats,” he said. “I didn’t care. I knew they were bad. How bad? It didn’t even matter.”

Everything about his delivery felt wrong, and it showed in the results.

“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,” Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley said. “It’s not easy to control that kind of gas.”

But Bard wasn’t even throwing gas anymore. He’d lost five miles per hour off his fastball.

That’s why, after that season, Bard threw out the changes he’d made to his delivery. He went back to his three-quarters arm slot to get more torque on his fastball. He started throwing his slider again. If it again led to disaster, well, at least it would be a disaster of his own making.

“If I was going to fail, if I was going to be done with pro ball, I was going to go out on my terms,” he said. “I’m not going to say, ‘Well, I tried to please people for two years and I was terrible, and I’m out of the game.’”

He also started pitching out of the bullpen for the first time in his life. It began with an offseason stint in the Hawaii Winter League in which he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen just to get more innings – and when he allowed just two earned runs and struck out 15 in 16 2/3 innings, the light bulb went off.

“I could just see the reactions of the hitters,” he said. “They didn’t want to be in the box. I was like, ‘All right, I’ve still got this. I can still dominate.’”

He went back to Single-A Greenville as a reliever and struck out 43 hitters in 28 innings; his ERA was 0.64. When he was promoted to Double-A Portland, he struck out 64 in 49 2/3 innings to go along with an ERA of 1.99.

When he got to spring training this spring, everyone there knew who he was and what he could do.

“You see 98, 99, and it’s always exciting to see guys who throw that hard,” fellow reliever Manny Delcarmen said. “I would get into a couple of (spring training) games before he threw, and I’d be inside and watching the TV just to see if I could see it, see the 97 or 99.”

And at Triple-A Pawtucket this season, Bard put together a 1.12 ERA and struck out 29 hitters in 16 innings before the Red Sox called him up.

The next step for Bard, of course, is dominating in the major leagues the way he did in the minors. He struck out Angels catcher Mike Napoli on a 97-mile-per-hour fastball in his big-league debut, but he hasn’t struck anyone out since.

He’s even allowing more than a hit an inning – including two line-drive singles on fastballs he left up on in the zone against the Blue Jays on Wednesday.

But Bard is well aware of how important it is for him to keep the ball down in the zone. When he warms up in the bullpen, in fact, he spots each of his first 10 or so pitches below the knees rather than in the strike zone just because it’s easier to climb the ladder in the strike zone than to go the other way.

“If he drives the ball down, with that delivery, that arm action and that velocity, he’s going to have a lot of success,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “I know he can elevate on purpose. But when you leave some balls up, with that velocity, in this league, they’ll take some pretty good whacks at you.”

He’s still due to take some pretty good whacks now and then as he learns how to pitch in the major leagues. But if he can endure what he endured two years ago and still reach the big leagues, not much is going to faze him.

“I’ve failed as bad as I can fail in a given year,” he said. “I’ve had as bad of a year as a pro player can have – and I’ve bounced back from it. Who’s to say I can’t have a bad month now and still bounce back from it?

“It’s probably going to happen. I’m going to have a rough stretch, a week or two, a month, whatever, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.”

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