- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Baseball has had its share of disastrous experiments. Jose Canseco trying to pitch. The White Sox wearing black shorts as uniforms. The Cubs using a college of coaches instead of a manager.
The Red Sox's attempt to convert Daniel Bard into a starting pitcher last season doesn't make that cut. You could even make the case that we'll never know whether it ultimately would have worked out, because the Sox pulled the plug after just 10 starts, the last a horror show in Toronto -- 5 runs on 1 hit, 6 walks and 2 hit batsmen in 1 2/3 innings.
Safe to say, it wasn't trending in the right direction.
"I don't think I was doing it long enough to say it didn't work," said Bard, one of the early arrivals at Boston's spring training facility here, on Thursday morning. "I was an average starter for 10 starts or so. I had a really bad one at a bad time, when they needed a spot for a guy coming off the DL. It is what it is. That's how it worked out."
Daisuke Matsuzaka came off the DL, Bard was out of the rotation, and soon enough, the wheels came off a pitcher who had been one of the best setup men in the American League. Failed starter? Bard became unrecognizable, losing a half-dozen miles off his fastball, losing his strike zone, losing his confidence, losing his way.
The Sox sent him to Pawtucket, where he posted a ghastly 7.03 ERA and gave up 31 hits and 29 walks in just 32 innings. The numbers only begin to describe how ugly it was.
"I think if they'd sent me home for two weeks in the middle of the season and I don't pick up a ball, that probably would have been the best thing," he said.
He intended that as a joke, and said if the Sox had seriously entertained that idea, he would have resisted.
"You always feel like you're one click away and you can battle through it," he said. "It was frustrating -- at times, very frustrating. I can look back at it now and see the bigger picture, see the things that led to the issues I had. It makes it a little easier to look back almost from an outsider's perspective: Well, I tried to do this when I was trying to become a starter and it led to these things, and I had a hard time breaking those bad habits. It's a lot easier looking back than when you're in the moment."
In the rejuvenating warmth of another spring training, Bard acknowledged that the season's ending was an act of mercy for him, and that some distance from the game has had a restorative effect.
What went wrong last season?
"A pile of things," he said. "I think it kind of compounded. I think when you're throwing every day, playing catch every day, pitching in a game every two or three days, no matter where you are, Boston or Pawtucket, those problems seem to snowball. That's what happened to me.
"It was good to get away. I think to get a couple months removed from everything and look at it from a bigger-picture perspective, I think that helped."
Bard and his wife, Adair, took a couple of trips, one to Napa Valley, the other to the Virgin Islands. They moved to Jackson, Miss., near his wife's family, where he hunted deer and duck and spent a lot of time outdoors. That gave him the chance, he said, to reflect on not only last season's struggles, but to remember, and rediscover, the things that got him to the big leagues in the first place.
"Two or three months without picking up a baseball, just kind of pushing the reset button as far as throwing mechanics, it all sort of comes back to you," he said. "Whether you had a good season or bad season, I think you kind of relearn how to throw when you pick up a ball in December and your body does what sort of comes natural."
Bard threw a bullpen session here Thursday morning.
"Finding that arm slot, feeling that release, just playing catch translates directly to how you throw on the mound," he said. "The first six weeks of throwing you don't get on the mound, it's just throwing, finding the target, building arm strength. I've gotten on the mound four or five times. It feels like it's translated pretty well.
"Like I said, it kind of comes natural after not throwing for a couple of months. I've thrown my whole life. That was the thing I battled with last year, finding that consistent slot, which leads to a consistent release, which leads to having better command. All I can say is it feels good right now."
It also feels good, he said, to know that John Farrell, who as Sox pitching coach saw him when he was at his best, has returned to manage the club. Bard insists he had no issue with Farrell's successors as pitching coach, Curt Young and Bob McClure, saying both had a "wealth of pitching knowledge."
He hit it off particularly well with "Mac," he said, but added that he and McClure may have "tweaked" too many things during the transition to starter. The beauty of Farrell's approach, he said, lies in its simplicity. And he can only benefit, he said, by having someone here who knows him so well. Last year, that was only bullpen coach Gary Tuck.
Farrell spoke with Bard on a couple of occasions this winter, then went to watch him throw.
"The first couple [conversations] were him getting a feel for where I was at mentally, physically, how I was feeling. Once he kind of got that, he came down to watch me in Mississippi. I think he saw things going in the right direction. He saw how good I felt.
"Talk to any pitcher, it's all about feel. You can kind of see when a pitcher has a feel versus when he doesn't. I think once he realized that feel was coming back, it was just a tweak here and a tweak there. I think it's become a lot more simple."
What the Sox will never know, because of the starting experiment, is whether Bard would have continued on the fast track to becoming the team's closer after the departure of Jonathan Papelbon. That was not a given; otherwise the Sox would not have traded for Andrew Bailey. But they have since added another closer in Joel Hanrahan, and a quality setup man in Koji Uehara, so Bard comes to camp without a clearly defined role.
The optimum plan, of course, would be for him to restake his claim to elite setup man.
"I'm back in a role I'm comfortable with, short stints out of the 'pen," he said. "That fits my mentality where I'm at my best.
"I know I have some things to prove, but I also know I feel good right now. I know that in the past, when I've felt good, things take care of themselves. Just kind of putting trust in my own ability. God has a plan for me, it's not all in my hands. I'm going to take care of what I can take care of and I'll end up where I'm supposed to."
Daniel Bard hopes a simplified approach will ease his transition back to relief.