FORT MYERS, Fla. — Until it became too ragged, Daniel Bard used to wear a black T-shirt around the Red Sox clubhouse with “I’m That Dude’’ across the front.
He was that dude, too, one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. Bard had a triple-digit fastball and a treacherous slider, pitches that produced a 2.88 earned run average over a three-season span starting in 2009.
During that time, Bard struck out 213 batters over 197 innings while allowing only 132 hits. Jonathan Papelbon received more attention because he was the closer, but Bard often had the more difficult assignments.
Former manager Terry Francona would unleash Bard in the seventh and eighth innings to stifle rallies. In the eyes of his manager, Bard was every bit as valuable as a closer, maybe more.
“He was overpowering,’’ Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said on Friday. “Nobody wanted to face him.’’
But with Bard a willing participant, the Red Sox tinkered with that success last season by making the righthander a starter. Bard did not pitch particularly well in spring training but was given a spot in the rotation.
In the regular season, Bard was 4-6 with a dispiriting 5.30 ERA in 10 starts. Even worse than the results were how he got there. Bard threw a fastball that averaged just over 93 miles per hour, and lost the bite on his slider. He walked more (36) than he struck out (34) over 54⅓ innings, and allowed six home runs.
On June 3 in Toronto, Bard had to be taken out of the game in the second inning after walking six Blue Jays and hitting two. It was painful to watch. The Red Sox sent Bard to Triple A Pawtucket, where he languished until late August.
Bard was inconsistent in the minors and lacked control. The same was true in the six games he pitched out of the bullpen after returning to Boston. The end of the season was a relief for him.
“It was good to get away, I think, and get a couple of months removed from everything and kind of look at it from a bigger-picture perspective,’’ Bard said. “I think that helps. If you’re going to talk about last year, you’ve got to talk about the three years before that, as well.’’
Bard did some hunting in Mississippi and went on vacation with his wife, Adair. They toured wine country in northern California and later hit the beach in the Virgin Islands.
Once he started throwing again, Bard felt comfortable. His arm was in its usual slot and the ball felt natural coming off his fingers. By the time he took the mound, that feeling was still there.
“It kind of comes natural after not throwing for a couple of months,’’ Bard said. “That was how I threw my whole life.’’
Bard threw off the bullpen mound at Fenway South on Wednesday and looked like the pitcher he once was. There are many tests ahead, but finally some optimism.
“He looks really good right now,’’ manager John Farrell said.
Bard said there was no one particular reason last season was so miserable for him. He admits to trying to be too precise with his secondary pitches and then losing his confidence. Not having a manager or pitching coach who knew him added to his inability to make corrections.
“It just seemed to snowball,’’ he said. “If they would have sent me home for two weeks and said, ‘Don’t pick up a ball,’ in the middle of the season, it probably would have been the best thing.
“I think we just tried to tweak a few too many things. The way I pitched in the past was simple. It’s attacking hitters, not thinking about really how you’re getting there. Have a couple of mechanical keys you go off of and let it eat from there. I kind of got away from that.’’
Saltalamacchia felt it was more attitude than anything else.
“There are two different mentalities, being a starter or coming out of the bullpen,’’ the catcher said. “I think Daniel’s mentality changed as a starter. He was pitching to corners and throwing more sinkers and changeups. That’s not him. I don’t think [Tigers ace Justin] Verlander changes what he does. He has great stuff and he goes after you with it. He says, ‘Here it is.’ But pitchers are weird, they think the more the hitters see them, the more they will figure them out. But it’s not always that way.’’
Bard arrived at spring training as an unknown. Was last season an anomaly or is he a pitcher forever locked in a struggle to recapture past glory? Other than to say he will pitch in relief, the Sox have been careful not to define expectations.
“Daniel Bard returning to the way he pitched late in the game for us a couple of years ago, it would give us not only a power arm, but another strikeout-type pitcher late in the game or at some point,’’ Farrell said.
“We’re long from outlining what roles are going to be. But I think most importantly is Daniel’s outlook, having learned from the struggles of a year ago and knowing what makes him an effective pitcher.’’
It’s far too early to judge. But Bard speaks like a man confident the clouds have parted.
“If I come in here and take care of business and throw the ball the way I’m capable of, a role or a spot will make itself available,’’ he said.
“l know I have some things to prove. But I also know that I feel good right now and I know that in the past when things have felt good, it takes care of itself. Having trust in my own abilities and having trust that God has a plan for me and it’s not all in my hands. I’m just going to take care of what I can take care of and trust that I’ll end up where I’m supposed to.’’