FORT MYERS, Fla. — The first batter Daniel Bard faced during Thursday’s exhibition game against Northeastern was Connor Lyons, a junior from Bedford, N.H.
Bard jammed Lyons with a 1-and-1 pitch, and Lyons hit it just hard enough to get over the head of shortstop Stephen Drew. It was just a bloop single, but it was hard not to wonder what would happen next for Bard.
The Red Sox righthander saw his career derailed last season, a switch from the bullpen to the rotation resulting in a decrease in velocity and a loss of command. Bard was demoted to the minor leagues in June.
When Bard returned to the Sox in August, he was used only in low-pressure situations out of the bullpen and he rarely produced good results.
Bard reported to camp this season smiling, saying two months away from baseball had cleansed him of bad habits. His early sessions in the bullpen and during live batting practice were encouraging.
But how would he fare after allowing a single to a college player? Would the problems that bedeviled him last season return?
Fifteen pitches later, Bard had struck out the side. His work for the day was done.
“This was the first real adrenaline rush, and it was a lot of fun,’’ Bard said.
Bard had a little trouble locating his fastball and went to his slider to overmatch the Northeastern hitters. That was in keeping with the team’s plan to rebuild Bard.
The first step is to get him to attack hitters with the ferocity he once did.
“We went from a guy that was ultra-aggressive, ultra-confident to one, with the change in role came a change in mind-set,’’ manager John Farrell said. “We’re getting back to shorter stints, the aggressor mentality. I know that’s something he set out to not only establish, but to regain and prove. Today was the first step in that process.’’
Farrell was the Red Sox pitching coach when Bard made his MLB debut in 2009. After two years of mixed messages from an assortment of pitching coaches, Bard trusts what Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves are telling him.
He also isn’t trying to regain everything all at once. Bard touched 94 miles per hour with his fastball Thursday. That’s better than it usually was last season, but not close to the velocity he featured as a reliever in 2011.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight,’’ said Farrell. “The one thing that we want to do is establish the aggressiveness first. If we have to make adjustments to gain more consistent command, that might be the case. First step is more from the mentality side of things.’’
Bard, who grew understandably angry at the results last season, welcomes the idea that he has to prove himself and earn a spot in the bullpen.
“That’s a good thing,’’ he said. “The last time I really came into camp with something to prove was my first big league spring training in ’09.
“I was not supposed to make the team by any means. I had a lot of people that I needed to impress in my mind and I was able to come out and do that.’’
Bard didn’t make the Opening Day roster that year. But he was called up in May and soon established himself as one of the game’s better set-up relievers.
If he can do that again, an already deep Red Sox bullpen becomes even more formidable.
“I think it’s a good problem to have for a team,’’ Bard said. “We’ve got probably 10 guys that deserve to pitch in a big league bullpen. Obviously that can’t happen.
“For me, my focus is on what I’m doing. I know that if I’m throwing the ball like I’m capable of, build on today, things will take care of themselves.’’
Because Bard still has minor league options, the Red Sox could test his readiness by having him start the season with Triple A Pawtucket. That also would serve to relieve the roster crunch. But spring training also gives Bard the opportunity to prove last season was an anomaly, and he is again a good option to protect a lead in the late innings.
“I think I’m a better pitcher when I’m goal-oriented,’’ he said. “At the same time, you don’t want to get too wrapped up in results. Especially as a short reliever, sometimes you can throw the ball great and have bad results. You want to focus on the task, the process.
“But my goal is to get outs. That’s why I broke out the slider pretty early today. I’m at my best when I focus on the competition at hand.’’
Farrell has been careful not to overanalyze Bard so early in camp or set expectations too high. But three quick strikeouts were hard to ignore, even if they came against a college team.
“Let’s not forget, it wasn’t too long ago that Daniel Bard was one hell of a reliever,’’ Farrell said, “He’s healthy and that stuff is still in there. It’s collectively our job to get him back to that level.’’