After three seasons as one of the most dominant setup men in baseball, Bard converted to starting last season, which turned out to be an unqualified disaster.
Prior to last year, the hard-throwing right-handed Bard had combined for a 2.88 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning out of the bullpen.
In 2012, he lost his control and went 5-6 with a 6.22 ERA in 17 games (10 starts), while earning a highly publicized demotion to the minors after a particularly wild start against the Toronto Blue Jays.
He enters the 2013 season without a guaranteed roster spot and many questions about whether he can regain his previous form. His first spring action of the year should give hope that he is getting himself back on the right track.
On Thursday, Bard was tapped to start Boston’s first spring game—a matchup against Northeastern University.
The Boston Herald’s Scott Lauber wrote at first it appeared Bard had picked up right where he left off last season. He gave up a single to the Huskies’ Connor Lyons and started off the next hitter, Michael Foster, with two balls before bouncing back to strike him out.
Instead of relying on his mid-90s fastball, Bard regained his composure by utilizing an improved slider, which he told Lauber he has improved by working with new teammate Joel Hanrahan, who has his own dominant version of the pitch:
I think we’re similar pitchers. We both have experience in the late innings with good fastballs and put-away sliders. We’re not pinpoint guys. That’s where I got in trouble last year, trying to be someone I wasn’t. Attack the zone. Challenge the hitter. That’s kind of what he does, too, so he’s a good guy to watch.
Bard went on to finish his outing by striking out the side on 18 pitches, including 13 strikes.
The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham noted that Bard didn’t appear to be pressing. This was something the pitcher agreed with, stating, “This was the first real adrenaline rush, and it was a lot of fun.”
While it was a dominant outing, the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton reported that Bard’s fastball command did not appear to be back to the same level it was prior to last year. However, new manager John Farrell didn’t seem too concerned and struck a more positive note:
At times, he leveraged [his fastball] downhill, his delivery was on time. There were other times you could see him come off the pitch where he’d run it up and in to a right-hander. That’s not totally unexpected.
I didn't think about baseball much for about two months. I think that was the best thing for me, just to break some of those bad habits that I built mechanically. I picked up a baseball in December and started fresh. There's nothing like a tough season in the offseason for motivation, just for working out, things like that. I think it was a productive offseason.
Abraham reported that Farrell warned against taking too much away from just one good outing:
I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. The one thing that we want to do is establish the aggressiveness first. If we have to make adjustments to gain more consistent command, that might be the case. First step is more from the mentality side of things.
Bard’s encouraging first action of the spring may have come across weaker competition, but it should be viewed as positive nonetheless. A major component of pitching is confidence, and if he can forget his previous problems, he will be a lot closer to getting his career back.
Bard knows he has to make the Red Sox and fans believe in him again, according to a comment reported by WEEI’s Rob Bradford:
The last time I really came into camp with something to prove was my first big league training in ’09… It’s not that much different this year, besides the fact that everyone knows my name and knows who I am. But I feel like I have something to prove.
So far, so good. If Bard can continue building upon the small successes, he will hopefully find himself completely back and contributing to the Red Sox in no time.
Statistics via BaseballReference