FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The suggestion elicited a double-take.
"I think," said one talent evaluator who watched Daniel Bard this spring, "that by the end of the season's first month, he might throw 100 again."
On the surface, the notion is startling. After all, a year ago, the disappearance of Bard's velocity transformed what seemed like a promising idea of having the right-hander move to the rotation into a a season-long nightmare that had him searching for his mechanics, stuff and ultimately confidence. Often, his velocity did not exceed the low-90s. The decline in his control was even more dramatic.
This spring, he's been a different pitcher. He's again been a power arm out of the bullpen. For the most part, there have been strikes. There have been a lot of 94s and 95s on radar guns, and on occasions like his most recent outing against the Phillies on Sunday -- one in which he punched out three hitters (including slugger Ryan Howard and shortstop Jimmy Rollins) -- he's touched 97 and even at times 98 mph. On several occasions, he's had power and late bite on his slider, as well as the ability to throw some changeups to induce bad contact against left-handers.
Given where he was throughout almost all of 2012, the performance by Bard has been impressive, revealing considerable progress for the pitcher. But he has yet to clock triple digits. So, he was asked, is 100 still in the tank for him?
"Yeah -- and I think I'm close," he said. "I know that mechanically and everything, I'm doing the things I want to do. Mentally, I'm throwing with the aggressiveness I want to throw with. There's nothing I would change about the way I threw [on Sunday]. It's just a matter of, things start to click. It seems like the velocity creeps back up. I'm not worried about it. I got some swings and misses on fastballs down the middle against the Phillies, which is what I'm used to seeing.
"[Velocity] is not what I'm concerned with," he added. "I'm concerned with how the ball is coming out of my hand, how hitters are reacting, how it feels coming out, and all those things are good right now. It's enough for me, I feel like I can get anybody out with the way I'm throwing right now and it's only going to get better."
This was a Bard who was comfortable in his own skin, whose conviction in his stuff helped to establish him as one of the top relievers in the game from the time of his call-up in 2009 to 2011. But to this point in the spring, he hasn't been quite the same pitcher, at least not entirely, not in every outing.
Scouts from other teams still remember how their heads snapped to attention in Bard's first big league camp in 2009. That year, in one of his first outings of the spring as a non-roster invitee to big league camp, at a time when most pitchers are building arm strength, he blew 99 mph and 101 mph fastballs past future teammate Mike Aviles (then with the Royals). But it wasn't the velocity that stood out. It was the appearance of effortlessness when he unleashed comets to the plate, as if he was just playing a game of catch, without a concern in the world.
That elegant simplicity on the mound was nowhere to be found last year, when Bard was trying to rediscover pitching out of a windup, and at times this spring, it has also been absent. There have been outings when Bard will take one or two or three hitters before he starts throwing darts in the strike zone, times when he needs to start spinning sliders before he can find the arm slot and release point of his fastball. There have been moments when he's struggled to control the running game, which talent evaluators surmise reflects the fact that he's still thinking through his delivery and his work on the mound.
But then there are the other glimpses, when Bard looks so compellingly close to the pitcher who attacked the strike zone and punched out more than a batter an inning with a 2.88 ERA while being entrusted, time after time, to record the most important late-innings outs of the game with the Sox between 2009-11. He had two hiccups this spring -- on March 19, when he gave up three runs on two hits, a walk and a hit batter on March 19, and on March 22, when in a minor league game, he issued a pair of walks, hit a batter and allowed a broken bat single while recording two outs -- but the broader body of work has been solid.
This spring, he has 10 strikeouts and three walks (though with a pair of hit batters) in seven innings. He's given up three runs, all in one outing. He hasn't been overwhelming hitters, but unlike a year ago, there haven't been any questions about whether he's overwhelmed by his task.
At a time when roster decisions loom, and when the Sox are finalizing the decision about whether Bard (who has minor league options remaining) or Clayton Mortensen (who is out of options) will lay claim to the last spot on the pitching staff, the Sox face an interesting dilemma with Bard. Manager John Farrell and GM Ben Cherington have both described him as a work in progress -- someone who has come a long way from 2012, but who has not yet returned completely to form.
And so, the team must now decide whether he is best served to take the final steps towards the sought-after end point by pitching in the earlier stages of games as part of a deep bullpen in the big leagues or by returning to Triple-A, where he languished for three months last year.
To Bard, however, there is less of a question. He understands that he's being judged against his past performance as a big league reliever, but he feels that he's close enough to that level that there isn't any reason to doubt his readiness to contribute at the big league level. The outing against familiar Phillies hitters such as Rollins, Howard and Chase Utley reinforced the point.
"I set a pretty high standard for myself with the way I pitched for a couple of years -- the velocity I pitched at, the results that I was able to get. I think people think, 'If he's not there, there's still room to go,' " said Bard. "At the same time, I feel good. The results have been really good for the most part if you take out one outing.
"What more do you want me to do? That's kind of the way I see it. If I can go out, get good hitters out like I did against the Phillies, do that during the season, maybe fine-tune things to where maybe I'm throwing the same velocity that I threw at a couple years ago, maybe it happens a month from now. But if I can get hitters out in the process, help this team win games in April, let's do that. That's the way I see it."
Bard makes the case that it is the heat of competition against the highest level that will permit him to take the final steps to the peak where he performed in the past. The contrast of his outing against the Phillies and a minor league spring training game where he struggled to generate the adrenaline necessary to compete off the bat underscored the point.
On the anonymous back fields, against players whom he does not know, Bard's attention was on his delivery and mechanics. Against recognizable big leaguers on the Phillies, the task was far simpler.
"It's not an excuse, but I faced a lot of No. 98s [in spring training] this year," said Bard. "Those guys are good players. They're up and coming. They're good players in their own right. But I don't know who they are. I don't have a scouting report. I don't have a history. But put me against a guy like an Utley, a Rollins, a Howard like Sunday, I have a visual image of how I attacked those guys in the past. I know where their holes are. I know how I want to attack them. When I have a game plan like that, I'm a lot more effective. It's not like I'm saying I rely on the scouting reports, but when you can go into an at-bat with a guy with a purpose -- here's how I'm going to get you out -- that's when I'm locked in.
"[Sunday] I was able to go out and not think about mechanics at all. I was able to think about attacking the hitter. When I'm able to do that, work on the things in between outings and on the side playing catch, that's the time to think about fine-tuning things mechanically. But [Sunday] was a positive sign for me because I was able to go out and focus on the competition.
"I said after that minor league game that I feel like I pitch better, the more important the game, the more important the situation. That's just how I am."
There is validity to the point. Bard, after all, isn't alone.
Jonathan Papelbon often acknowledged that he found it difficult to pitch in minor league spring training games because of the absence of any motivation. Members of the Sox rotation in recent days -- Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster -- likewise have acknowledged that their stuff is not as sharp in front of a crowd that numbers in the dozens.
Even so, it was in those very settings that Bard resurrected his career five years ago, where he proved that he had the ability to return from a disaster of a year. In 2007, Bard's first professional season after the Sox took him in the first round of the 2006 draft, he was a mess as a starter, going 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA while walking more than a batter per inning for High-A Lancaster and, following a demotion, Single-A Greenville.
After that year, however, he found his mechanics and velocity while working as a reliever with minor league pitching coach Mike Cather in the Hawaiian Fall League, and carried his adjustments forward to minor league camp the next year. There, Bard put himself on the path to dominance out of the bullpen, commencing a year in which he had 107 strikeouts and 30 walks in 77 2/3 innings with a 1.51 ERA in Greenville and Double-A Portland in 2008.
It is difficult to overstate how quickly he managed to take his career from a free-fall to a fast track to the majors. Still, there was an incline that he had to ascend, even over the course of 2008.
"Of course he came down on hard times in 2007, so there's a mental or psychological issue that he's dealing with because he probably experienced failure at a level or to a degree that he'd never experienced it before," recalled Sox minor league pitching coach Bob Kipper, who had the right-hander in Lancaster in 2007 (during his nadir) and at Greenville at the start of his 2008 emergence. "What was the difference? I think what progressed in 2008 was that he began to understand who he was at that time, that he was a dominating right-handed pitcher with dominating stuff. The mentality or the psychology changed in his mind. I think his experience in the Hawaiian Fall League with Mike Cather, they figured out a way to simplify his delivery. I think that's what he came to spring training 2008 with -- a delivery that was simpler in his mind. If it's simpler in his mind, it's easier to repeat.
"I think it's something that progressed. You've heard that success breeds confidence. He came to spring training more confident with who he was at the time. Certainly, he felt more comfortable in his delivery after the work in the Hawaiian Fall League. And I think he carried it over into spring training. He just carried himself differently. His delivery was more controlled and there was greater direction and extension to all his stuff. Then, that was carried over into game performances. he was dominating game performances here in spring training. Again, success breeds confidence. Now this guy is feeling really, really good about who he is and what he can potentially become. We saw a positive snowball effect, if you will, of good performances turning into better performances. And I think we saw that carry on for the next however many years."
That turnaround, Kipper noted, bodes well for what Bard is capable of achieving now. He's already managed to leave behind a horror show of a season once, render it a distant memory. That suggests that he can do it again.
"If I exercise my common sense and be practical, I'd think that what he went through in 2007 and 2008 can be a helpful tool for him," said Kipper. "It's not a question of can I recover. It's, well, I've done it before and I'll do it again.
"Without really knowing where he's at, I'd like to think that he's confident that he can recover, rebound and re-establish the dominance in his game. But these things aren't going to happen overnight. They didn't happen overnight in 2007 into 2008. There were things that progressed in time."
The same can be said now. Bard has moved a considerable distance in a positive direction along the spectrum that features his 2012 season on one side and his performance from 2009-11 on the other. The work remains incomplete, but there is promise.
In that respect, the pitcher sees the similarities to the turnaround that he achieved in 2008, albeit with one notable exception.
"The only difference, I would say, is that I was pitching in minor league camp and never had to answer one question from a reporter about every outing along the way. It's the nature of the game being here, but I was able to focus on what I did that day," said Bard. "If I felt good out there throwing, it didn't matter what happened or what it looked like. I could feel good about it. Here, everything is a little more scrutinized. I expect that. That's the only difference. I came into this spring knowing that I needed to focus on me, not outside opinions. That's what I've done, good or bad. I think you can't get caught up in outside praise or criticism. Either one is a weakness."
Still, it is ultimately the outside view of the team that will determine where Bard opens the 2013 season. The team is still weighing the merits of whether he will be in Triple-A or the majors to open the year, a decision that is in part a numbers game (all things being equal, a team would prefer to maximize its depth of major league-caliber options -- meaning that the team would like to avoid losing the out-of-options Mortensen) but that also reflects on his performance from outing to outing.
In that regard, Wednesday could represent an important moment in Bard's spring and season. He's pitching against the Marlins at JetBlue Park, likely his last opportunity of the spring to make his case for a job on the big league staff to start the year.
The 27-year-old understands what is at stake, comprehends that the roster decision is around the corner.
"I'm fully aware of that," said Bard. "That's the stuff that's out of my control. All I can do is go out and pitch like I did Sunday. "I think I've proven -- hopefully I've proven to everyone this spring -- that I've put last year behind me. Hopefully I've put it behind everyone else in their minds, too. I've moved on and I'm ready to have a good year this year."
And if that means starting the season in Pawtucket?
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," said Bard, "but I know where I plan on being."
Yet in some respects, the issue of where Bard starts the year remains secondary to the question of when and how he will end it. Even if he opens the season in the big leagues, that doesn't mean that he's all the way back -- at least not yet. But what has become evident is that there's a path back to that high bar that Bard set for himself at the start of his big league career, and that the pitcher is finding ways to reach for it.