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Daniel Bard, despite struggles in minor league game: ‘I feel like I’m ready’

03.22.13 at 5:43 pm ET
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Daniel Bard struggled in his minor league appearance on Friday (AP)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Daniel Bard is not the first pitcher to struggle in a minor league spring training game. Jonathan Papelbon, for instance, often admitted to the challenge of channeling the necessary adrenaline to perform at a peak level, to lock in mechanics in a fashion to pitch with the ferocity that characterized his typical work during the regular season and even, to a lesser extent, in Grapefruit League spring training games in front of crowds.

Still, there is something of a chicken-and-egg question that looms over Bard this spring. He’s shown flashes of excellence, touching 97-98 mph on occasion and at points demonstrating the ability to pound the strike zone. But there have been other occasions — most notably, his last two outings (1 inning, 3 runs, two hits, walk, hit batter on March 19 in a Grapefruit League game; 2/3 inning, hit, two walks, hit batter, two strikeouts on Friday in a Double-A game) — where he hasn’t been able to snap to attention at the outset.

Against Double-A hitters in a minor league spring training game on Friday, Bard authored the following sequence: single up the middle, stolen base, walk, walk, strikeout, strikeout, run-scoring hit by pitch. There was promise when he unleashed his fastball down in the strike zone and spun sliders to get swings and misses in the two punchouts, but it was impossible to ignore the command struggles that put him in a jam in the first place. 

Bard feels he needs adrenaline and a charged atmosphere in order to put himself in position to be sharp.

“I don’t think you can conjure [a reliever's mentality] up in a spring training game necessarily. I think you kind of need to force yourself to a little bit, but I think you’ve got to, I don’t know what kind of innings early in the year, but wherever that is, you’ve got to treat it like it’s important,” said Bard. “Honestly, the bigger games in my life are the ones where I pitched better. I thrived in the eighth inning in Yankee Stadium, going back to the playoffs in ’09 — I love those situations, because the focus is all on the competition and getting three outs, no matter how you do it, find a way to do it. That’s usually when I’m at my best.”

Yet without demonstrating the ability to self-generate that outlook, it is going to be difficult for the Sox to entrust him with those sorts of responsibilities at which Bard feels he’s at his best. That, in turn, has Bard in an interesting position with just over a week left in spring training.

He has minor league options. He could be sent back down to Triple-A Pawtucket to continue to build upon the progress he’s made this spring. And make no mistake — there has been progress. His velocity, which disappeared last year, has crept back up to sit mostly in the mid-90s. His slider has been a power breaking ball that has shown the ability to elicit swings and misses, particularly for right-handers.

Still, there’s been inconsistency. The command appears and then wavers. Bard’s shown the ability to get it back, but it’s tough to summon a reliever who is prone to occasional glitches with his ability to pound the strike zone.

So what to do? Bard has his opinion, of course.

“I feel like I’m ready. I want to get back to pitching big innings for this team, important innings. It’s just a matter of getting out there consistently,” he said. “[Pitching coach Juan Nieves] said it the other day — the more I get out there, the better I am usually. I’ve got another one tomorrow and try to build on what I did those last couple hitters here.”

Fairly or not, Bard likely will be held to a higher standard than some of the other veteran relievers when roster decisions are made. Given his woeful command a year ago, it will be difficult for the team to keep him on the big league roster at the start of the year if he cannot attack zone consistently. And so, whereas other pitchers can simply have a bad outing or two and inspire a shrug, Bard may be held to a higher standard. Perhaps, it was suggested, he is micro-analyzed?

“Tell me about it,” he said. “[But] I really don’t know any other way. It’s hard to even answer that question. It’s just how it’s been for the last two or three years, ever since I made that switch to starting for a little while.”

Bard is a better pitcher now than he was at the end of last year, and at times, it looks like he is not far from the potential to be an impact arm out of the bullpen.

“I feel like I’m in such a better place,” he offered. “Velocity is coming back up, I feel like I’m in control out there, with the exception of a couple hitters to start that inning. I feel like I have the stuff that I’m used to pitching with the last couple years, the last few years.”

Still, he isn’t a finished product in that attempt to return to form, and so as spring training winds down, there are still unanswered questions about the reliever that ultimately render uncertain where he will begin 2013.

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