Monday, May 11, 2009

The Bard, Bard, Bard, Bard is the word

Rhode Island's own Peter Griffin has been calling for the Red Sox to recall Daniel Bard for weeks.

Unlike Hunter Jones and Michael Bowden, who had one big league appearance apiece under their belts when they were entrusted with a lead against the Yankees during a national TV game Apr. 26, there was no dramatic emergence on the big stage last night for Daniel Bard. But that didn’t diminish the pride felt by an organization that patiently oversaw Bard’s transformation from a potential draft bust who couldn’t find the strike zone as a starter to an almost incomprehensibly dominant late-inning reliever who could someday replace Jonathan Papelbon as the Red Sox’ closer.

“It’s exciting, obviously, and I’m really happy for Daniel with everything he went through that first year back in ’07 just to see how he responded to that situation,” Red Sox director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod said Sunday night. “And really, from that time and the time leading up to that winter, [he] really stepped into this new role with both his feet. And it really has just been a lot of fun for us to watch, when you see the hard work that he’s put into it get rewarded in terms of performance at the minor league level and then obviously with a call-up today. It makes everyone in the organization very proud.”

Theo Epstein probably had no idea in October 2006 that Bard would one day serve as the poster child for his re-commitment to player development. Bard, a first-round pick by the Sox that June out of North Carolina, signed with the Sox weeks earlier following a summer of negotiating. He made his professional debut the following spring at Single-A Lancaster, where he didn’t exactly provide the Sox an immediate return on their $1.55 million investment.

Bard, pitching in one of the most extreme hitter’s parks in minor league baseball, walked 22 and allowed 21 hits in just 13 1/3 innings over five starts. After a stint on the disabled list, he was demoted to Single-A Greenville, where he improved only slightly pitching at sea level: Bard walked 56, allowed 55 hits and posted a 6.42 ERA in 61 2/3 innings over 17 starts.

After the season, the Sox suggested he go to winter ball in Hawaii and pitch in relief. At the time, the Sox weren’t necessarily committing to him as a reliever: Management just hoped he’d be able to end the year on a positive note.

Bard continued to battle his control in Hawaii, where he had a 1.08 ERA and struck out 15 but also walked 15 in 16 2/3 innings. But McLeod sensed an increased confidence in Bard at the end of the season in Hawaii and believed he might have found a home in the bullpen.

“One thing I know we discussed that off-season was I know a lot of times when we saw Daniel as an amateur really dominate was in short stints, whether it be on the Cape or with Team USA,” McLeod said. “When he came out of the bullpen, you just kind of saw a different demeanor from him. He was much more aggressive in the strike zone and I think it just suits his personality a lot better.”

Nobody expected it to suit him as well as it did last season, when Bard—armed with a modified delivery he’d begun working on in Hawaii—began the season by striking out 43, walking just four and posting a miniscule 0.64 ERA in 28 innings at Greenville. He continued to impress at Double-A Portland, where he struck out 64, walked 26 and posted a 1.99 ERA in 49 2/3 innings while recording seven saves.

Bard performed well during spring training this year and was almost unhittable at Triple-A Pawtucket, where he earned the promotion to Boston by striking out 29, walking just five and posting a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings. He notched six saves and pulled off one of the rarest feats in baseball Apr. 22, when he struck out the side on nine pitches against Rochester.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that Bard’s minor league success will translate—instantly or otherwise—into similar results at the big league level. But if Bard does emerge as a quality reliever for the Sox, it’ll be another organization-wide victory for a franchise that is committed to nurturing its prospects, even through multiple hiccups in the most demanding market in the game.

Manny Delcarmen is one of the Sox’ top set-up men now, but he had a 7.30 ERA in his final 23 appearances of the 2006 season and opened 2007 by posting a 7.24 ERA in his first 10 outings at Pawtucket. Clay Buchholz hasn’t gotten his second extended shot with the Sox yet, but he’s responded to a rough 2008 with the Sox (2-9 with a 6.75 ERA in 16 games, including 15 starts) by going 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA and 26 strikeouts over 27 innings in five starts thus far at Pawtucket.

“What [vice president of player personnel] Ben Cherington and [director of player development[ Mike Hazen are doing on the player development side and the system that they put in place over there, the minor league coaches and the staff that we have over there,” McLeod said. “Getting to go see first-hand how these guys work with our young players, watching these guys in the Rookie Program when they come in and the things that they put them through—not just the physical but the mental. I think when guys come up here, they’re mentally prepared to handle it.

“And also, it’s just the kids and the types of players that we’re drafting, all the way down to our area scouts that are trying to find out what players have the right mental makeup to perform in Boston. I really do believe it’s just an organization-wide accomplishment when these guys come up and do good.”

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