Bard speaks bullpen's language
He may be a starter now, but he's there for Aceves, Padilla, Morales & Co.
TORONTO -- The other day in Detroit, when a reporter approached Vicente Padilla, the Nicaraguan-born pitcher looked for help in the Red Sox's clubhouse.
"Translator?" Padilla asked.
"I'll do it," Daniel Bard said.
It never came to that -- Padilla wound up otherwise occupied -- so Bard's Spanish-speaking skills were not put to the test.
"I know a little bit -- not much," he said the next day. "I took two years, one year in high school, one in college. It was a very tough credit, all grammar and stuff, tough for me. I can pick up better on the conversational stuff. And my wife [Adair], she was a Spanish major."
But Bard's lack of fluency has not kept him from forging friendships with the guys who share his livelihood, like Padilla and Franklin Morales, a Venezuelan, and Alfredo Aceves, a Mexican, with whom he competed for a starting spot this spring and who now occupies the closer's role. For Bard, born and bred in genteel North Carolina, the melting-pot aspect of the baseball culture is real. It has been that way since he entered pro ball.
"Sitting in a bullpen with a guy two or three months straight, you got to get to know them," Bard said. "And you find you might have something familiar in your backgrounds. If I can talk about something that has nothing to do with baseball but that we have in common, like hunting, you're going to get closer to those guys naturally. That's just how it is.
"I find it interesting to talk to guys like Franklin and Aceves and Padilla, kind of figure out what their upbringing was like, when they go home what it's like, where they come from. It's interesting to see how guys got to this point.
"Aceves and Padilla, they're different guys for sure. Ace has spoken English only four years. When he signed with the Yankees, he said he spoke almost no English at all. Now I would say he's as fluent as anyone here, with the exception of guys like David [Ortiz], guys who played here a long time. He's unbelievable compared to, say, Franklin, who has been here eight or nine years and his English is still limited. But I love Franklin, he's awesome. Really laid-back off the field, really intense on the field."
A guitar has helped create a bond between Bard and Aceves.
"I feel like I know him probably as well as any of the English-speaking guys at least," Bard said. "We spent a lot of time in the bullpen. We both play guitar. He'll teach me something, I'll teach him something, just messing around in the clubhouse.
"I get along with him, but I don't think anyone can fully understand him, especially on the mound, what he's thinking. He just has a different approach to pitching, which is good in a lot of ways."
There is a fierceness in Aceves' expression that seldom goes away. He joked this spring about how his "bad face" makes it difficult for people to tell when he's happy.
How intense is Aceves, who has come to be called "Ace" in the Sox clubhouse?
"Different every day," Bard said. "You never know what you're going to get."
What you need as a late-inning reliever, Bard said, is a pitcher who can get a strikeout when he needs it.
"You just don't see many eighth-inning or closer-type guys successful for a long period of time without striking some guys out," he said.
"Sometimes when you're pitching to contact as a reliever, you get yourself in trouble. It's not really your fault. It's not hard contact, and the whole goal of a pitcher is to miss barrels. Usually you're happy with a mishit ball, but then it falls in.
"You have to pitch to a strikeout as a late-inning reliever."
That's precisely the argument made by those who believe that the Red Sox should abandon their plan to start Bard, which is what he is doing Tuesday night against the Blue Jays, and return him to the back end of the bullpen instead of Aceves and Mark Melancon. Last season, Bard struck out hitters at the rate of 12.2 per nine innings; Aceves was at 6.3, Melancon 8.0.
What does Bard say to that?
"Yes and no," he said. "Melancon struck out plenty of guys last year. Ace has two or three swing-and-miss pitches. It's just learning how to use them.
"There's such a different approach to starting, and pitching the eighth or ninth inning with a lead. You just need to prove you can throw strikes in the eighth and ninth innings, then hitters are going to say OK, and they go into 'swing' mode. They all want to hit that game-tying or go-ahead homer. Use that to your advantage. You're going to get a lot more swings out of the zone than a starter would."
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Bard talked about Aceves' outing in Detroit on Sunday, when he gave up a flared single, a ground-ball base hit, then a game-tying home run to Miguel Cabrera.
"I think when you get in Ace's situation -- first-and-second, nobody out, best hitter in the game up -- you know he's thinking homer there. That's the only thing in his mind," Bard said. "You use that to your advantage. You get him to chase three pitches. It's not guaranteed, but you'd rather walk him there than give up a home run when you have a three-run lead.
"Start him with a slider, brush him back off the plate, then you can do whatever you want. You never give him that heater middle in unless you have to. You've got to pitch away from contact there. It sounds bad, but you get guys out that way late in the game."
Aceves will figure that out, Bard said.
"It's different for every guy," he said. "It took me a while to learn. My first year , I wasn't really pitching in those situations 'til August and September. I thought you just attack guys with your best stuff, be aggressive. You do want to do that to an extent, but still have to throw strike one, and it has to be a quality strike. Then you can do whatever you want from there.
"You don't have to throw two or three contact-type pitches in one at-bat. You only need to throw one, then the guy is in 'swing' mode."
For the time being, the Sox are committed to their plan to have Bard start, which became a much more debated topic when the Sox lost newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey to thumb surgery.
"Bobby made one mention of it," Bard said. "He said, 'You might get some questions.' I think it was the same day he told me I was starting. He said, 'We don't know about Bailey yet; he's probably going to miss some time at the beginning of the year. If they ask you about being the closer, tell 'em you're starting right now until you hear anything different.'"
Why, then, has Valentine seemingly dropped hints that it might be only temporary?
Bard smiled. "I think he likes to do that,'' he said. "It gives you [reporters] something to talk about."
I don't know what's going to happen with me, but if I start the next 10 years, guys will forget that I came into the league and was a good setup man for three years.” -- Daniel Bard
This was no spur-of-the-moment decision by the Red Sox, he reminded his visitor.
"They talked to everybody they possibly could talk to," Bard said. "They talked to me a couple of times this offseason about it. I'm sure they talked to [Bob] McClure and got his input, Valentine's input, [Ben] Cherington's input. They probably went to guys like Bill James and asked, 'Statistically, what can this guy do for us as a starter?' and he gave his input.
"I'm sure it was a very calculated decision. It wasn't like, 'Hey, this guy's a great setup guy, let's see if he can be a great starter.'"
And there is an economic factor to consider. Good starting pitching is a scarce commodity, and the homegrown kind costs considerably less than the going rate on the open market.
"A million and a half for me or [Roy] Oswalt for $10 million," Bard said, alluding to the free-agent right-hander pursued by the Sox in the offseason. "Yes, Oswalt is a proven commodity, you know what you're going to get, but is he worth the extra $8 million? I don't know, but they think everything through, and I'm sure they thought this through."
Bard noted how many starting pitchers, including Curt Schilling, started in the bullpen.
"Did you know Schilling wasn't a full-time starter until he was 26?" asked Bard, who is the same age.
"I don't know what's going to happen with me, but if I start the next 10 years, guys will forget that I came into the league and was a good setup man for three years."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.