PHILADELPHIA -- It hasn't been terrible. It hasn't been great.
This is the best way to describe what Daniel Bard has gone through to date as a starting pitcher. In other words, if you're looking at using a reliever-turned-starter's first eight games in the new role as a barometer, he's somewhere in between C.J. Wilson and Brandon Morrow.
Wilson's first seven games as a full-time starter? Off the charts. We're talking 1.48 ERA, 48 2/3 innings (one complete game) and a batting average against of .201. His team, the Rangers, also totaled a 5-2 mark during those starts.
The hard-throwing Morrow was more unsettling in his initial seven starts. A 5.40 ERA and just 35 innings, with a .227 batting average against and a team record of 2-5. He did, however, carry an impressive 9.8 strikeouts per nine inning ratio.
Now, as Bard is coming off one of his worst starts in his young career out of the bullpen, we take stock of what the Red Sox have here. In seven starts the righty has a 4.93 ERA over 42 innings with a .259 batting average against, with the Sox holding a 2-5 mark in his outings. This after taking the loss in a five-inning, five-run, five-walk meeting with the Phillies.
What Friday night at Citizens Bank Park did, however, was offer perhaps the best reminder of the season of exactly how much a work in progress this thing is for Bard.
Wilson was able to do it because he accepted the challenges and the differences of the role. Morrow has come to terms with what starting takes, as is evidenced by one of the best seasons thus far of any starter in the American League East. And now it's the Red Sox' righty's turn. This was (and is) the education of Daniel Bard:
PICKING THE RIGHT PITCH
After the loss, Bard identified one pitch as the most important: A 3-2 slider to the first batter he faced, Jimmy Rollins.
"My first mistake was throwing a 3-2 slider to the leadoff guy," he said. "It works for me a lot, but it's probably not the smartest thing to do to the first guy of the game. That's getting out of that reliever mode still. If it's the eighth inning and he's the winning run, it's a little bit of a different situation. Leading off the game, I need to be more aggressive there. It just put me in a little bit of a funk. I didn't respond to it real well."
Coming into the game, Bard had thrown 26 pitches on a 3-2 count, with just nine coming in the form of a slider.
It also spoke to the starter's inability to pound the strike zone, with (according to the Providence Journal's Brian MacPherson) Bard finding the strike zone on just 36 of his 94 pitches.
SITTING ON THE SLIDER?
Entering the game, opponents were still just hitting .171 against Bard's slider. The reason early on, according to the pithier, was that hitters were sitting on his fastball. He was, after all, considered a fastball-first hurler.
But in the two starts leading up to Philly, things had changed. Opponents hit .375 against Bard's slider (compared to .111 in the six previous appearances), a trend that didn't change against the Phillies.
"I think they did today in the first inning. It was pretty clear I didn't have a feel for the fastball, so I had to try something else, which is kind of what happened in my last start, too," he said. "My last start, I was able to command the breaking ball and the changeup and get myself out of a similar jam. Today, I guess I didn't make as good of pitches. They definitely would be crazy not to sit on it. I proved I could throw the slider for a strike. I can't throw the fastball for a strike. Might as well sit slider."
STILL LOOKING FOR THE HEAT
Bard never threw a pitch faster than 94 mph against the Phils and averaged right around 93 mph with his fastball. For the season he has thrown five pitches at 97 mph, and one at 98 mph.
He knew reading the radar gun was going to be a different experience this time around, he just didn't realize it was going to be this different.
"My arm feels good. It feels good," Bard said. "I keep kind of telling myself that I think the fastball's going to get a little bit better. I knew there'd be somewhat of a drop-off velocity-wise when I went to starting, I thought when I needed I could reach back for 96, 97. That hasn't been the case obviously, because the stuff hasn't been there. I'm looking at the swings they take. When I'm 93, 94, they're just as late as they were on that 97. I think it's the way I've been able to set it up. If I can just establish strike one a little more consistently, the velocity can be whatever it wants to be. That's the key."
And with the question regarding the velocity comes the search for strikeouts. In his last four starts, Bard hasn't managed more than three strikeouts in any start. Of his 26 strikeouts, only eight have come via the fastball.
"That's the thing I’m trying to figure out," Bard said. "You know, when to kind of let it go, when to harness it back a little bit. Still learning with every start. Until now, this is my learning experience of still being able to keep us in a position to win and today right out the gate took us out of a really good position to win and we did a good job just to stay in the game."
FINDING THE RIGHT DELIVERY
After the Rollins' at-bat, Bard went on to walk three of his four batters. When the first inning was all said and done, the Phillies were holding a 4-0 lead. It was a frame the Sox starter admitted included an uneven approach.
He figured it out, but by the time he did it was much later than anybody on the Sox' side would have liked.
"It's got to be a little bit of a mental, a decision you have to make out there, to step off and reset," Bard said. "It's not perfect every time. It's not an instant fix, just think the right thoughts, otherwise everybody would do it. It's just going back to what works, going back to the delivery you can trust, and trying to power through it. I kept thinking the next one was going to better and better, and it wasn't. Before I knew it, I was in a bases-loaded jam and I wasn't able to limit the damage like I should have."
One of the good things about Bard is he is very self-aware. Sure, in this case the recognition could have come sooner. But to be able to identify the exact problem going forward can't be underestimated.
"You want me to put it in layman's terms?" he responded to a question about the aforementioned kink in his delivery. "There's a way that I get my arm up in the back that allows me to throw the ball through the catcher is the term we use, which is basically just being aggressive to the middle of the zone. It's almost a mentality as much as it is a physical thing. It's really just trust in your best fastball, whether it ends up in the middle of the zone or on the edge where you're trying to aim and going from there. It's almost just trusting it. It's not that I'm not trusting it, it's going from mentality of kind of hoping for a good result rather than knowing you're going to get a good result. And I think every pitcher faces that. When you're going good, it doesn't cross your mind. When things start to go bad in an inning or whatever, you battle those different things that go through your mind. It's how you respond to them is what makes the difference. It just took me a little bit too long to respond to it. On the plus side, I came up the next inning, was able to last four more innings."
The education continues, a fact that was reinforced Friday night.