Last Wednesday, in a 6-5 Red Sox win over the Orioles, Daniel Bard allowed two runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings before getting lifted with the bases empty after 90 pitches. Afterwards, he acknowledged that he didn’t feel like himself on the mound.
On Tuesday, in a 6-3 Red Sox win over the Tigers, Bard allowed two runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings before getting lifted with the bases empty after 94 pitches. Afterwards, he sounded like a pitcher for whom a light had gone on.
Perhaps more importantly, despite the similarities in the lines, Bard looked like a pitcher who had solved the riddle of his disappearing stuff, most dramatically in one at-bat against Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.
The Red Sox held a 4-1 advantage in the top of the fifth inning, but the Tigers were threatening with two on, two out. Cabrera was in position to tie the game with a swing of the bat. The challenge was significant.
“He’s possibly the best hitter in the game. Any pitcher would agree with that,” said Bard. “He’s capable of hitting any pitch he wants to sit on no matter how hard or how nasty it is.”
In recent outings, as Bard labored to find the right delivery, arm slot and release point, it would have been difficult to envision success. As the pitcher himself noted, “It’s amazing I was able to get through those [last two or three starts] without having a two-inning, eight-run outing. I was able to grind through them, but it wasn’t easy.”
But this was a different sort of Bard than the one who had occupied the No. 51 jersey in recent weeks. This was the Bard whom the Sox wanted to see move from the bullpen to the rotation, the one capable of mixing mid-90s heaters with a swing-and-miss slider and an effective changeup to unbalance lineups for five, six or seven innings at a time.
Mindful of the need to avoid falling into a pattern against one of the game’s elite hitters, the sequence to Cabrera went as follows:
(0-0) 89 mph change - foul
Bard: “Starting him off that at-bat with a changeup probably messed with his head a little bit, I would assume, because I probably have never thrown it to him. He’s geared fastball or slider. He’s going to try to recognize one of those two pitches out of my hand. When I can throw that third pitch in the mix to a righty, it changes the whole at-bat.”
(0-1) 94 mph fastball - swing/missÃ¢ÂÂ¨
(0-2) 81 mph slider in dirt - ball
At this point, Bard summoned Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the mound to tell his catcher exactly what he wanted to throw. It was the sort of self-assured demand that has seemingly been absent for Bard's up-and-down tenure as a starter. Saltalamacchia returned to his crouch and the at-bat continued:
(1-2) 95 mph fastball down and in - ballÃ¢ÂÂ¨
(2-2) 95 mph fastball - foulÃ¢ÂÂ¨
(2-2) 89 mph changeup just off the outside corner - ballÃ¢ÂÂ¨
(3-2) 82 mph slider down and away - Cabrera chases for swing-and-miss
So, on the last three pitches of the at-bat, Bard felt confident enough to throw all three of his pitches, and at a time when his pitch count had been hiked into the high-80s, he was still bringing mid-90s heat, the power slider that could get a chase and a changeup that nearly clipped the outside corner. The punchout ended the last significant Tigers threat of the game.
“I don’t know what he was sitting on the last pitch of the at-bat, but I know I executed a pretty good slider,” said Bard. “You really just have to keep pitching him differently, show him everything you’ve got, and keep mixing it up. That’s what I did.”
The at-bat showed a pitcher with a starter’s mix, a starter’s mindset and stuff capable of getting a whiff from one of the game’s top hitters. It was the highlight of a night in which Bard offered a compelling reminder of why the Red Sox wanted -- and want -- to see what he can do in the rotation.
It wasn't a perfect outing for Bard, who gave up a pair of four-pitch walks to No. 9 hitter Ramon Santiago (“I was pitching [Santiago] like he was Barry Bonds,” Bard laughed after the fact) and also allowed a pair of solo homers (one to Jhonny Peralta, another to Prince Fielder), the first time this year that he's given up multiple homers.
Still, on this night, Bard was an entirely different pitcher from the one who had seemed lost at times in May. He walked two (his fewest since May 2) and struck out four (his most since April 27) and simply looked in control of the game.
Bard credited an improved ability to stay in his delivery with the improved performance and confidence. From the windup, he angled himself more towards third base, almost as if pitching from the stretch, in an attempt to gain greater consistency from pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat.
The result was a lower arm slot but a consistent release point, similar to the style of pitching that Bard exhibited both as a reliever and in April when he felt like his mechanics were locked in. As a result of his improved delivery, Bard also rediscovered some of the velocity that had disappeared from his arsenal. According to the date at brooksbaseball.net, he exceeded 94 mph 15 times on Tuesday, compared to just three pitches of 94 mph in his prior outing against the Orioles.
“I made a couple of tweaks, nothing major, but just a couple of things to keep everything on time, to keep my arm in the same slot. I made those tweaks in my side session three days ago and felt really good about it coming out of that,” said Bard. “I think I just made so many little tweaks to my delivery since spring training. … I needed to get back to what gave me success for the past three years, and that’s being a little bit closed off, a little bit rotational, a little bit lower slot, but it’s the same [arm slot].
“Tonight felt a lot -- I’m not going to say it was easy, but I didn’t feel like I was fighting myself, but I was able to concentrate on the competition with the hitter and let my delivery do what it’s supposed to do.”
Bard’s biggest concern coming out of the game had little to do with his own performance and more to do with how his manager treated it. The right-hander was chagrined that his manager felt compelled to lift him in the middle of the sixth inning, at a time when he’d thrown 94 pitches and felt he had more in the tank.
“I’m not satisfied with this 5 1/3 stuff. It’s kind of weird, my last two outings, I’ve been pulled at 5 1/3 after a strikeout with the bases empty,” said Bard. “I understand Bobby being conservative with me the last couple because the walks have been an issue coming into this one. I see where his mind is at. I just wanted him to know that I want to be out there and be going six, seven innings as a starter.
“I get where he’s coming from,” Bard added. “Typically, I have struggled as I get deeper in the game. I just told him, I made it clear, as respectfully as he could, I let that half-inning end, but I told him, ‘I’m ready to start finishing those innings. I don’t need to be treated like a kid anymore.’ ”
That opportunity did not come for the pitcher on Tuesday. But if he continues to pitch as he did against the Tigers, then Bard has a chance to make his case all the more compelling.
“He said it’s time for me to be in there longer. I’m going to take that under advisement,” said manager Bobby Valentine. “He doesn’t want to go out and the bullpen has to be on full alert. He wants to share more of the burden. I get that. And there’s going to be a lot of games where he’ll do that.”