FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Daniel Bard's well-publicized 'reset button' officially gets pushed Thursday.
For the first time since Sept. 28 of last season, when he made a one-inning stint at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Bard will face opposing hitters. And even though the opponents will be wearing the red and black of Northeastern, it will be the biggest step back to normalcy for the reliever in just about a year and a half.
"It's just a good feeling to have a guy in there, pound the zone and have some guys try and hack against me," said Bard, who threw a live batting practice session Saturday, although neither hitter -- Jeremy Hazelbaker nor Jonathan Diaz -- swung the bat.
"I feel good. I'm letting the ball go. There are still some mechanical things we're working on. I feel like I'm head and shoulders above what I was doing last year. Toward the end of the year, I was a mechanical mess."
Recollecting what transpired in 2012 is one of Bard's least favorite subjects these days. Yet he also understands that with every bullpen session, batting practice go-round, and Grapefruit League offering there is going to be an exorbitant amount of scrutiny because of that season.
But with the familiar sight of the 27-year-old living the life of a reliever -- pounding the strike zone with simple thoughts of beating his opponent with two really, really good pitches -- it raises the question: What if there wasn't that hiccup? What if the perceived predestined career path was never altered and he had simply take over as the Red Sox' closer instead of attempting to enter the starting rotation?
"There were points last year where it would seem to make sense," Bard said. "But that is so far in the past I don't really waste my energy thinking about it.
"For two years that was all people said, whenever [Jonathan Papelbon] leaves I would be the closer. It wasn't even questioned. It was just assumed. When he did leave … I struggled that September, but other than that I had a pretty good year. Even with September, everything improved. I put together a good year, bad last few weeks of the season, and people forgot I was there. That's fine. And then the whole starting thing was partially my doing. I gave them the option and they could have gone either way with it."
Go back to the final eight weeks of the '11 season. Bard had turned in perhaps the best four months of his career, totaling a 1.76 ERA and .166 batting average against while striking out 49 and walking 13 in 51 innings. As he pointed out, the road to replacing Papelbon was being paved.
But then, in the final two months, Bard's workload seemingly caught up to him, as he posted a 6.95 ERA in his final 21 games.
Still, the late-season setback wasn't enough for the Red Sox to devalue Bard's talents. If that was the case, thoughts of moving him into the starting rotation wouldn't have been considered. No, the detour away from putting the righty in as the Sox' next closer was about seeing how his roster value could be maximized.
"I remember for some reason thinking we had a good chance to re-sign Pap when the season ended. I don't know what it was," Bard said. "From the stuff I heard him say -- and looking back he was probably ready to get out of here -- but for some reason I thought they might sign him to a shorter deal or something."
Did that inclination lead to the initial thoughts of starting?
"Maybe," he said. "I don't remember the whole thought process, to be honest with you."
So, Bard became a starter. But what if he hadn't, and instead became the closer many believed he was destined to be, and his downturn was limited to just those two months instead of an additional season?
-- The Red Sox most likely don't trade for Andrew Bailey.
-- Josh Reddick, in the absence of such a trade, might have remained with the Red Sox.
-- Without Bailey's salary on the books, the Sox might have had enough money to sign free agent starter Hiroki Kuroda or Edwin Jackson.
-- If Reddick had been retained, the Red Sox likely wouldn't have needed to invest three years and $39 million in Shane Victorino this offseason.
It is understood that this isn't how baseball works. There are no defined timelines, and one changed outcome wouldn't have necessarily changed the others. (For instance, perhaps the Sox would have used Reddick in a different deal last offseason even if they hadn't traded for Bailey.) But at least some of the scenarios would seem logical if Bard had remained a reliever.
But that wasn't the only time Bard seemingly had a chance to alter the Red Sox' roster-building history. There seemed to be yet another chance for Bard to jump back into his former lot in life when Bailey was sidelined with a thumb injury in the final days of spring training last season.
The decision was made, however, to keep the pitcher going down a road that had started in October, placing him in the starting rotation to begin the season. While most assumed Bard would have been devastated if he was thrown back in the bullpen -- with Alfredo Aceves getting the call to start -- he said that wasn't the case.
"That probably makes the most sense," Bard said of using that chain of events to make a move to closer, compared to immediately after Papelbon's departure. "I had made a lot of progress that spring as a starter but probably wasn't where I needed to be. There was a learning curve, but it would have been just as easy to come and tell me, 'Hey, we would love to keep moving you as a starter, but there are extenuating circumstances and we need a closer.' Even if they told me I wasn't the closer and they needed a back-end of the bullpen guy we can trust, I would have been fine with that. I wasn't going to be one to complain about that. Obviously if there was a need, I was there to fill it."
What might have happened in that case?
-- The Red Sox would have gotten a better idea of whether Aceves could have filled the role in which he might have the most value -- starting.
-- Bard wouldn't have gotten caught up in altering his approach.
-- Assuming Bard had maintained his prior success in the bullpen, the Sox might not have felt motivated to acquire the services of Joel Hanrahan for what may be one season.
And, most importantly, Bard's spring training appearance against Northeastern wouldn't be micro-analyzed above and beyond any Red Sox pitcher's spring training outing in recent memory.
But what's done is done. The organization's hope is that whatever did get derailed is now firmly back on some familiar tracks.
"It's in the past," Bard said. "We are where we are now. I would rather look forward and see what's going to happen."