As much as the absence of Josh Beckett had been glaring – and as significant as his return was – it may have ranked as the second most important event for the Red Sox on Friday night.
That is because Beckett is capable of impacting just the one day out of every five on which he pitches. Daniel Bard, on the other hand, can play a major role in any game that the Sox try to win.
That is what made the right-hander’s recent struggles so alarming for a team that had already found itself slipping through September. In the span of eight days, from Sept. 7-14, Bard had absorbed three losses, including a pair in which he’d blown leads. Had Bard been able to do what has become the norm throughout his career, and safely secured passage of a lead to Jonathan Papelbon, the current four-game series against the Rays might not have represented an exercise in urgency.
Even so, the way Bard saw it, he had endured three straight outings of bad results, but not three straight outings of poor pitching.
The Red Sox right-hander had suffered losses in three straight games and given up runs in each, marking just the second time in his career that he’d suffered such a skid. But despite a succession of ugly lines – a one-inning, five-run stint in Toronto, a walkoff loss in Tampa Bay, a three-run yield in an inning of work on Wednesday – Bard had few regrets.
On Sept. 7, there had been a game against Toronto in which he allowed five runs while walking three and hitting a batter. But he’d entered that day having told the team that he was available but tired, hoping that a day off would be possible but prepared to pitch – or so he thought – if it wasn’t. It wasn’t, and he struggled.
On Sept. 10, against Tampa Bay, Bard suffered a loss in which Evan Longoria had somewhat miraculously gotten the head of the bat on top of the pitch the reliever wanted to throw – a chest-high 98 mph fastball – and lined it into center. Bard was left to tip his cap.
Then came Wednesday, the one outing where Bard felt he’d truly struggled. His fastball command was poor, resulting in walks to the first two batters of the inning. An error by the pitcher, an RBI groundout and a two-run single to center pushed three runs across the plate, and left Bard in a state of some introspection.
The pitcher remained confident. He was able to identify the mechanical glitch that was leading him to pull his fastball.
Still, while the pitcher did not doubt his ability to resume his role as the Sox’ key late-innings avenue to closer Jonathan Papelbon, he undertook the unusual step (for him) of seeking out Terry Francona and making clear that he would not object if the manager wanted to use him in less leveraged situations.
“For them to give up on me that quick, yeah, it would stink. But I know Tito and I have a good relationship. There’s a lot of trust there,” said Bard. “I went to him [Thursday] and told him, ‘Do what you want with me. Throw me in whatever inning you want to throw me. But know that I want to pitch.’”
Francona did, too. In fact, he wanted Bard to continue to pitch in the same role in which he’d spent the entire season, being summoned into the game at times when the outcome of the game hung in the balance.
“I think the first time we even talked about anything pitching related was two days ago. He said, ‘The results have stunk lately but I know that you’re still the guy that you’ve been all year long and the last couple years, so I’m going to stick with you,’” recounted Bard. “And I told him I want to be in the game when it’s on the line.”
And so, it should have been completely unsurprising to see Bard jog onto the field for the top of the eighth on Friday night with the Red Sox leading the Rays, 4-3. It was a situation in which not only the game but potentially the season was on the line.
If the Rays were to come back, surge to a late-innings win and move within two games of the Sox in the wild card, a growing sense of anxiety and dread could sneak into the Boston clubhouse. The rare uncertainty surrounding Bard could turn into alarm bells.
Given that alternative, the Sox did little to hide their excitement about the right-hander’s performance on Friday night in an eventual 4-3 victory. After Alfredo Aceves logged a scoreless seventh, Bard took the mound in the eighth, the Sox asking him to do a job that they not merely wanted but needed him to perform.
"If he does it like he's done the majority of the year, we have a chance to be the team we want to be," said Francona. "If we start running from Daniel, it's not going to work."
On Friday, it worked. Bard struck out Johnny Damon on a check-swing, full-count slider that hit the Rays DH in his left foot. While Damon was initially awarded first base, third base ump Bob Davidson ruled that he had not held up his swing, punching him out.
“A back-foot slider, by definition,” Bard chuckled.
Then, after Ben Zobrist worked a six-pitch walk, Bard made quick work of Matt Joyce, who fouled off a first-pitch fastball, swung and missed at a second pitch changeup and then swung and missed at a slider. Bard concluded the inning by punching out catcher John Jaso on a slider.
More than in recent outings, Bard featured all three of his pitches. The impact was two-fold. First, the Rays hitters found his arsenal unpredictable. Secondly, the prevalence of off-speed stuff (Bard through nine fastballs, three changeups and six sliders) helped him find his mechanics.
“I talked to [bullpen coach Gary Tuck] about it yesterday I guess. He said you’ve gotten away from using your changeup, which was a really big pitch for me in the first half. For whatever reason, I just hadn’t thrown as many,” said Bard. “I went back to it and it’s still there. It was really big for me tonight.
“Any pitcher will tell you there are certain times throwing off-speed pitches will get you locked back into your mechanics for whatever reason. I do a pretty good job of keeping my weight back on my changeup. If I can throw that where I want to, usually that translates to my fastball, too.”
The sight of an effective Bard was a tremendous boost for the Sox, who enjoyed their first one-run win since Papelbon’s last save four weeks earlier, on Aug. 18.
Simply put, there are few other pitchers in baseball – and no one else on the Sox – who are capable of doing what Bard can do when he is in command of his full pitch mix. The team recognized that it needed him to regain his footing, while also letting the pitcher know that he still commanded their complete confidence.
“I told him this the other day. There's not anybody I’d rather have in my foxhole than him. He’s Daniel Bard,” said Sox starter Josh Beckett. “I want him pitching the eighth, every game I start, for the rest of my career. I don't know if that’s gonna happen, but that’d be pretty good. I’d like my chances.”
Bard was grateful for such support. That being the case, he permitted himself a moment to savor this particular night of success.
He once again looked the part of the dominant reliever, someone ready to contribute to the Red Sox’ push for the postseason rather than a detriment to that goal. In that turn of events, he could find significant satisfaction.
“It’s amazing how much you appreciate the success when you get reminded how tough this game is,” said Bard. “Sometimes you start to take I for granted when you get on a little bit of a run and this game will humble you pretty quick.
“I felt like I went out and earned [the team’s trust through struggles],” he added. “It’s never going to be given to you in this game. Sometimes the rough patches get highlighted a little bit more because you’re in a pennant race or whatever. That’s what happened. I knew I’d bounce back.”
For the Sox, the timing of that return to form proved not a moment too soon.