- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A major league scout who was here Thursday night said he was very close to pitcher Steve Blass, the former Pirate who mysteriously lost his ability to throw a baseball over the plate and was out of baseball within two years of developing what has become known as "Steve Blass disease."
"To this day, he says he can't explain why it happened," the scout said of Blass, now a broadcaster with the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He had pinpoint control, with a slider that he could throw on the black, and the next year in spring training, no one wanted to hit against him because he was maiming people.
"The brain is a strange muscle."
Blass' name came up during a discussion of Daniel Bard, the Red Sox reliever whose control issues have reached alarming proportions since he was returned to Double-A Portland after a cameo appearance with the Red Sox last month, when he made two appearances against the Houston Astros. He was lifted in the second one after walking the only two batters he faced.
On Wednesday night, Bard walked five batters, threw two wild pitches and threw strikes on just 8 of 30 pitches. He has made five appearances since his return to Portland, walking 13 batters in 3 2/3 innings.
Obviously, the Sox are worried, although not yet to the point that they are considering shutting him down or perhaps sending him to extended spring training in Fort Myers. For now, manager John Farrell said, he will continue working with Bob Kipper, the Portland pitching coach who was with him back in 2007, when Bard was able to make a drastic correction to the wildness problems that plagued him in his first year in professional baseball, when he averaged more than a walk an inning (78 walks, 75 innings) at the Class A level.
"Given what's transpired, not just in the last couple of outings but over a period of time, there's some concern there," Farrell said. "Any time you go out and you're throwing 25 percent strikes, that's a tough way to go.
"I know this is something that Daniel's working through, he's fighting through. We're there to give him the best feedback that we can and encourage him along the way. He's going through a pretty tough stretch right now."
When asked about shutting Bard down, Farrell said the team has yet to determine what is the best way to proceed.
"To say that it's one thing and there would be a magic remedy for it, we would certainly give it to him," Farrell said. "Yet it comes from repeating a delivery and what allows that to happen. That's being in a good place mentally and confident that you're going to execute a pitch in a given situation, and that's been elusive for him right now.
"We haven't gotten to the point [of pursuing other action] yet. Each outing is discussed internally but it's more about continuing to address the needs of Daniel and trying to provide him that help as best we can. We haven't gotten to the point of any drastic measures one way or the other."
Bard is meeting with Sox mental skills coach Bob Tewksbury, who coincidentally was one of the best control artists in the game when he pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Farrell noted that in spring training, Bard strung together several consecutive outings that gave him a "legitimate shot to make this club." There has been obvious regression since then, which Farrell contended can't be blamed on his demotion following his April stint with Boston.
"We've got to get to the point of Daniel being very candid and honest with himself, and not be deflecting some of the things that he might be feeling," Farrell said. "Just be as bluntly honest as we can.
"This is something that you can't run from. We haven't gotten to that point of just taking the ball out of his hand. I don't think we're of the mindset that things are going to just turn for the sake of turning. You're looking to do something, you're looking to be proactive, address something with getting involved in a situation like this, and we continue to do so. I'm sure no one is more frustrated than Daniel is."
Blass was 30 years old and coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 1972, when he went 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA for the Pirates, walking just 84 batters in 249 2/3 innings. He also beat the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series that season.
The following year, 1973, Blass went 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA and walked the same number of batters (84) in 88 2/3 innings that he had the year before. He also hit a league-leading dozen batters.
He pitched just five innings for the Pirates in 1974 before ending his career.
Bard is only two seasons removed from being one of the best setup men in the game. The Red Sox abandoned their experiment to convert him to a starter after he walked six batters in 1 2/3 innings against Toronto, shocking him with a demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. He fared worse for the PawSox, posting a 7.03 ERA while walking 29 batters in 32 innings, before a late-season call-up to the Red Sox.
He pitched in six games, all lost by Boston, giving up nine runs on eight hits (three home runs) and six walks in 4 1/3 innings.
A more recent example of a major leaguer who experienced a baffling loss of control was Rick Ankiel, who as a 20-year-old left-hander for the St. Louis Cardinals suffered his lapse during the NL playoffs, walking 11 batters in four innings. He made just six more starts for the Cards in 2001, missed the 2003 season after Tommy John surgery, briefly returned as a reliever in 2004, then converted full time to the outfield in 2005.
2dScott Barboza, Special to ESPN.com