Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 26, 2020

Out Of The Wilderness, Onto The Mound

“When Daniel Bard took the mound for the Gulf Coast League Mets on July 2, it had been 1,527 days since his last appearance in the majors. And though he didn’t know it that day, facing the GCL Nationals with the midday sun beating down in West Palm Beach, it’d be the last time he’d ever take the mound in a game.” So begins a story by Chris Cotillo on the sports blogging site, datelined January 2018. Had it been published on newsprint, as would have been the case in the world of once upon a time, by now the paper would be yellowing and curling at the edges. And though every writer hopes that their product will stand up over time, Cotillo, who is now the Red Sox beat writer for, probably doesn’t mind that his second sentence has turned out to be untrue. For on Saturday Daniel Bard found himself on a pitcher’s mound once again, and not at some lonely minor league park far from the Show, but at the Texas Rangers’ new Globe Life Field in the 5th inning of a game between the home team and Bard’s Colorado Rockies.

The 1,527 days had stretched to 2,946 by the time Rockies manager Bud Black summoned Bard to relieve Colorado starter Jon Gray. Seven years and almost three months since the last Saturday in April 2013, when Bard jogged in from the Red Sox bullpen in right field of Fenway Park, called upon to preserve a healthy Boston lead of 8-3 over the visitors from Houston. It was a low pressure, early season situation, just the kind of outing that might help to restore the confidence of a struggling young pitcher. Instead the mental demons that had transformed a one-time fireballing relief pitcher turned prospective starter for the Boston franchise, into a candidate for baseball’s scrap heap of failed players, were on full display. Bard couldn’t find the plate. He walked Carlos Pena on four pitches, and then issued a free pass to Carlos Corporan in just five. Nine pitches, eight balls, and Bard’s night was done.

Less than twenty-four hours later his Red Sox career was history as well, with Boston sending Bard down to its AA affiliate in Portland Maine. Through the rest of that season his descent continued, from Portland to Lowell, in the single-A New York Penn League, and eventually on to the Gulf Coast League, typically the haunt of newly drafted players, before Boston released Bard that September.

Just four seasons earlier he had been on a profoundly different path. The 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year in Boston’s organization, Bard made his big league debut in mid-May 2009. Originally drafted as a starter, he had been converted into a bullpen option for the major league team, a change that enabled him to ramp up the velocity on his pitches. His fastball was regularly clocked in the high 90s, and occasionally hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. From 2009 through 2012 Bard was a key member of Boston’s relief core, most often in the role of setup man. In 2010 he posted a 1.00 WHIP and 1.93 ERA in 73 appearances. The following year he set a club record with 25 consecutive scoreless outings in the first half of the season.

For 2012 the team decided to convert Bard back into a starter, which of course cost him some velocity, as he had to marshal his strength for longer outings. But a far more serious problem than a diminished fastball quickly emerged. After stumbling through the final month of the previous season, going 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA in September 2011, Bard continued to struggle with his control. Before being sent down to AAA in June, as a starter Bard walked or hit 45 batters, eleven more than he struck out. Called back up later in the year and asked to again pitch out of the bullpen, he fared no better.

When a new season brought no improvement, the Red Sox chose to cut their losses, and Bard’s journey through the nether world of the minor leagues began. After being released by Boston he signed briefly with the Cubs before moving on to pitch at various minor league stops for the Rangers, Cardinals and Mets. At one point he even detoured to the Mexican League. But everywhere Bard went the result was the same, a handful of appearances and pitching lines bloated with walks and hit batsmen. After pitching 2/3 of an inning in that July 2017 outing for the Mets’ Gulf Coast League affiliate and walking five batters, hitting two more, and uncorking three wild pitches, Bard’s pitching career appeared over. The story appeared a few months later, after Bard had formally announced his retirement.

He stayed involved with the Great Game, most recently serving as a mentor and mental coach for the Diamondbacks. While working with young players in that role he was told repeatedly that he still had major league stuff. Over the winter Bard decided that he once again had the self-confidence to try. He accepted a minor league contract with the Rockies and was impressive enough in this year’s aborted spring training that Colorado invited him to stay with the team. When rosters were set after MLB’s brief July training camp, Bard’s name was on Colorado’s.

Which brings us to Saturday, and the end of nearly 3,000 days in the baseball wilderness. Bard entered the game with two outs, but also with runners on first and second. The tiring Gray had already allowed one run to score, cutting the Rockies lead to 2-1. Against Elvis Andrus, Bard’s first pitch was a slider for a called strike. He missed the zone with his second offering but came back with a 96 mile per hour sinker to pull ahead in the count. Then Andrus made weak contact on another slider, flying out to left field to end the inning. Manager Black stayed with Bard for the 6th, and he worked around a pair of ground ball singles through the infield to retire the side. The second out was a three-pitch strikeout of Rougned Odor, the last one a 99 mile per hour four-seamer that the Texas second baseman swung at and missed. In the end, the Rockies lead held up, and with starter Gray going less than the required five innings to earn a victory, Bard got his first major league win since May 29, 2012.

One outing does not make a comeback, something Bard doubtless knows better than anyone. But a pitcher who forgot how to throw a baseball into a strike zone from sixty feet, six inches, threw twenty-five pitches on Saturday, and only five were called balls. When he returned to the dugout after retiring the side in the 6th inning, Bard said to his manager, “That was fun.” After 2,946 days, it must have been a blast.

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