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Bard blazing his trail

Sox pitcher opens eyes with fastball

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 17, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - There is a magic to triple digits. It's unimaginable territory to most major league pitchers, and hitting it with any regularity brings the eyes immediately to the radar gun. But to Daniel Bard, hitting 100 miles per hour with a pitch has lost a bit of its allure. It is, after all, not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for him.

Bard has hit 100 in college, the first time in his junior year at the University of North Carolina. He has hit 100 in the minors, the number drawing amazement from teammates. He has hit 100 in spring training, while facing Mike Aviles in a game against the Puerto Rican WBC team.

"It was pretty exciting," Bard said of his first shot at 100 miles per hour. "It's just like in high school when you hit 90 for the first time. It's a landmark. At this point it might get some fans a little bit excited. But if it's not getting me outs, then I'm not concerned. I'd rather throw 92 and get outs than 100 and struggle."

It's his skill as a pitcher - and not just that outstanding velocity - that has generated enthusiasm from the Red Sox coaching staff.

"I think he's very close," pitching coach John Farrell said of Bard's readiness to pitch in the majors. "We just happen to be in a situation where we've got depth, not only in the rotation but also in the bullpen.

"But it's exciting to see a guy that's really come on - if you track back to last June and watch the progression that's been made, it's been outstanding."

So outstanding that, because Bard wouldn't oblige the Red Sox by getting himself into trouble, they had to provide trouble for him. For yesterday's game, a 6-4 win over the Blue Jays, Bard was told that he would be inserted when starter Justin Masterson hit his pitch-count limit. Masterson happened to do that with no outs and men on second and third in the fourth inning.

Just the thing to get the blood pumping.

"It felt good," Bard said. "Definitely more of an adrenaline rush than starting a clean inning, which I think plays to my advantage. I think my game is a step up [in that situation]. My pitches are better."

Starting with a battle against Travis Snider - eventually striking him out looking - Bard took care of three straight batters, though a groundout by Raul Chavez brought home an inherited runner.

Bard gave himself a bit of a challenge in his second inning, when Joe Inglett doubled over Jacoby Ellsbury's head in center field but was cut down at third trying to stretch his hit. A double followed and, after a second out, a walk.

But Jose Bautista was caught looking, and Bard was done.

"Up until this point, he's come in to start a clean inning," Farrell said. "To see how he reacted in those types of situations was almost preplanned today. Certainly it was to be brought in in the middle of an inning.

"We couldn't script it to come in with nobody out and men on second and third, but I think what was important was he didn't try to do more than he's been doing of late, and really pitched an excellent 1-2-3 to minimize the damage."

One thing Bard has changed this spring is his glove placement as he gets ready for the windup. Instead of coming set at his waist, Bard comes set at his chest. It's a way of simplifying his mechanics, making them easier to repeat. One less movement, and perhaps a simpler and more consistent way to keep his pitches in the zone.

It's hard to argue with the performance, even before the alteration in delivery. And it's a performance that might have seemed impossible to those watching Bard two years ago, when he had a 7.08 ERA between Lancaster and Greenville as a starter, when he walked 78 batters in 75 innings and struck out just 47.

It was a season that took the focus off baseball for him. Made him mature faster. Made him understand that there's more to life than the sport.

"I had the confidence that I was going to at some point, whether it took a year or two years, that I was going to go back and be the pitcher I knew I was," Bard said. "It was just a matter of time.

"It was just a setback to me. Some people say it was a lost year - if you didn't have that year, you could have been in the big leagues a year sooner. I don't look at it that way, because I learned so much that year about myself as a person and as a player. That's an invaluable year for me.

"I've come back from the worst year possible, so I can come back from a difficult two or three weeks."

That seems so long ago now. Over his six games and seven innings this spring, Bard has surrendered only three hits and two walks while striking out 10. It's a performance that manager Terry Francona yesterday called "terrific," one that the coaching staff can't seem to find enough adjectives to describe.

"I think everybody's been impressed the way he's not only thrown the baseball, but how he's handled himself with the performances that he's had," Farrell said. "He's maintained a very level head, and a very consistent approach.

"I think he's come to the mound with the right intensity and effort level in his delivery that made him a successful pitcher a year ago. So he's repeating that. And, again, there's no denying the physical abilities and the stuff that he has."

Whether that's at 100 miles an hour or not.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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