NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – The creed that Daniel Bard swears by nowadays is simple enough.
Jams on the mound are going to arise – but how he reacts and responds to those situations is what matters most. Even the most successful professional pitcher can never be flawless, and therefore he must have an unflappable disposition when confronted with an inevitable first-and-second, no-out jam.
“When you go out there, it’s a matter of competing and not expecting to be perfect. Everyone is going to allow baserunners one way or another,” stated Bard prior to Double-A Portland’s doubleheader against New Britain on Friday. “You may miss with a pitch, but it’s how you respond.”
Bard has proven an interesting case study with the Sea Dogs. The much-scrutinized reliever’s 2012 campaign was marked by a failed early-season stint as a big-league starting pitcher and an equally disastrous summer when moving back into a relief role for Triple-A Pawtucket (7.03 ERA in 31 appearances).
This season with Portland he owns a 4.91 ERA through 11 appearances, an unimpressive mark at first glance. But upon closer examination, Bard’s performance has been far from discouraging. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in eight of his 11 appearances, even though he has allowed a base runner to reach in 10 of them.
The conclusion to draw is that Bard has been able to bear down and has not let pressure situations spiral out of control, a problem that reared its ugly head again and again last season.
Call it the art of minimization, an area where Bard feels that he’s taken significant strides.
“It’s a mindset of not giving in and just continuing to grind and get those outs. That’s what matters the most,” Bard expressed. “Regardless whether the leadoff batter reaches or not, my approach is to stay the same or get better.”
A year ago at this time, Bard was part of Boston’s starting rotation. The move from the bullpen ended up backfiring, but even so, most Red Sox observers hold out hope that he will be able to summon the form he showed during his three-year run as one of the top relief pitchers in all of baseball.
Bard’s velocity has declined from where it was during his golden years with Boston – those who have watched him this year have seen a fastball in the 91-93 mph range, while his slider has become his most consistent pitch. But he expressed that from a mental standpoint, he finds himself in a much more tranquil state.
“I feel more comfortable. My delivery is in a spot where I can trust it a lot more than I could at any point last year. Is it perfect? No, but we’ve made a lot of good steps in the right direction,” the 27-year-old said. “I’m excited to pitch now instead of last year, which felt like a chore. I think that right there has me feeling optimistic.
“When I was at my best for three or four years, I was far from perfect,” Bard continued. “I adjusted really well and bounced back pitch-to-pitch. I didn’t let one pitch or one bad result to a hitter take me out of the inning. That’s been the focus as far as the approach goes.”
While his recent stint with the Red Sox was short in terms of time spent with the ball club and encouraging results – Bard was pulled after issuing consecutive walks against Houston on April 27, a stint that featured seven-of-eight pitches outside the strike zone – it did contain some redeeming value.
“It was a big adrenaline rush and makes you appreciate being up there,” said Bard. “Your perseverance gets tested in situations like this, but my relationship with God has been better. It’s been a test, but at the same time, I feel that I’ve become a better person and ultimately I’ll be a better pitcher for it.”
There are some that may have raised an eyebrow or two when the Sox cleared a 40-man roster spot for Jose De La Torre to come up rather than recalling Bard. But despite getting passed over, Bard expressed confidence that a spot in Boston’s bullpen will come eventually.
“Obviously that’s my ultimate goal, but thinking about (returning to the bigs) is going to make me force things down here. It’s a matter doing my work every day and going out whenever my name is called down in the bullpen and competing to help (Portland) win. If I do that on a consistent basis and do it well, I think they’ll find some room,” said Bard. “I’m hoping to be a long-term fix there; that’s all I want.”
Stated Sea Dogs Manager Kevin Boles, “Obviously he’s on a mission to get himself back to where he was. From what we’ve seen this year, he’s been able to repeat a delivery, a simple, clean delivery. Once he gets a little bit out of that delivery and tries to do a little too much, he realizes that got a little excited on that last pitch and is able to focus pitch-to-pitch rather than what’s going on around him. Executing and driving the ball through the zone has been key for him.”
Tony Thomas understood that he was a long shot to make Pawtucket’s roster coming out of spring training. To him, the allure of playing every day at the Double-A level was an enticing prospect, not to mention a prime opportunity to ply his new trade as a left fielder.
“The game is a lot slower in the outfield, which is one thing I’ve started to pick up,” said Thomas. “In the infield, it’s bang-bang, but in the outfield, you’ve got to get to the ball, set your feet and then make the throw.”
An infielder with the PawSox over the last two seasons, Thomas is enjoying coming to the ballpark knowing that there’s a good chance that he’ll see his name on the lineup card. He presently tops Portland in RBI (23), slugging percentage (.513) and total bases (60).
Though he’s made seven errors, the 26-year-old believes that by enhancing his versatility, he can be more valuable in the eyes of talent evaluators.
“As long as I have a good bat, they’ll try their best to find you a place in the field,” Thomas said. “The more versatility you can prove, the better your chance to get called up.”
Boles said that J.C. Linares, the outfielder who started the season in Pawtucket before getting sent to Portland on April 19, has featured “great work habits and a great attitude.” The skipper also noted that Linares has shown signs recently of snapping out of his season-long funk – he entered Friday batting .209 with a .641 OPS in 27 games between Pawtucket and Portland.
“We think he’s going to start taking off pretty soon,” said Boles. “He’s a guy who tries to ambush early in the count and a lot of pitchers in this league know that. If it gets to two strikes, sometimes he expands the zone bigger than what we like, but he’s shown signs of hitting the breaking ball in conversion counts and early in the count.”