Nine Years Later, Daniel Bard is a Strike-Throwing Machine
As Daniel Bard approached the mound at Coors Field with two out in the top of the ninth on Tuesday night, the Rockies having seen a six-run lead trimmed to just one run with runners on first and third, he smiled at manager Bud Black.
""I handed him the ball and he said, `Let's close this out,'" Black remembered. "There was a calmness about him. It was really cool."
And, it got better. Bard did close it out, battling Arizona pinch-hitter Stephen Vogt to a 2-2 count, and then, instead of that 98-plus fastball, Bard delivered an 88-mile-per-hour breaking ball on the outside corner of the plate for a game-ending called strike three.
Big deal? Real big.
It was the former first-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox's first save in nine years, two months and one week. Talk about a winding world of failures and refusals to give up, talk about Bard.
I was so long ago that he couldn't remember the game or the date or the opponent.
"I don't remember it at all," he said. "I don't know if anybody remembers it. I know I had a number of saves in my career (5-for-20 in that regard)."
Heck, he hadn't even pitched in a minor league game since he made a July 2, 2017 appearance for the Mets rookie-league affiliate in the Gulf Coast League until he got the call for the Rockies in Texas.
To add to the moment on Tuesday, it came against Arizona, a team he spent the last two years working for in the minor leagues as a mental strength coach.
"That was strange," he said. "I know about 90 percent of the guys in the dugout. ... The coaching staff. ... The medical staff. . . Most of the players. It was surreal. It was like playing for a team that you were traded from, but I wasn't a player. It was strange but cool."
Bard belies that old smart-aleck line about, "People who can't teach." Oh, he taught, all right, but given another shot to pitch in the big leagues this year by the Rockies, Bard didn't hesitate taking the invite and crashing the regular-season party.
And the story gets better every day. The right-hander has worked nine innings in eight games so far, compiling a 3.00 ERA, but more importantly, after having his world turned upside down by his inability to throw strikes nine years ago, he has yet to walk a batter.
He has not even gone to a three-ball count on a hitter, having thrown 97 strikes out of 139 pitches.
On Tuesday night, it was a six-pitch, four-strike showdown with Vogt.
"That will be one I remember," he said. "Just getting back to pitching at this level, I have gone beyond anything I would imagine."
But he is 35 -- six years older than any other active player on the Rockies roster -- and with his age has come maturity.
"I fully embrace the role of being the old guy," he said with a smile. "I am comfortable with it, given what I did the last few years."
And the Rockies, they are more than comfortable with what they have in Bard.
He is a veteran who knows what it is like to be on the mound at a critical time.
The difference today from the past?
He is enjoying opportunity.
He's not worried about impressing anybody.
He's just focused on getting outs, and being an active part of a big-league team, again.
"It has been a weird year for everybody, myself included," Bard said. "I was fortunate to sign a minor league deal. Then I get the invite to big league camp. And even then I was like, `Man, this is really cool.' I never thought I'd pitch in any sort of big league game so just to get in those games (in the original spring training), and be really be comfortable in that environment again. ..."
He paused, reflecting on what he had been through since his ability to accurately throw a baseball had disappeared in the final month of the 2012 season.
"I signed all kind of deals from 2012 to 2017, with a lot of different teams, trying to get back, and I was never comfortable because I wasn't confident in what I was doing on the field. And so much of my identity was tied up in that. Anytime you are part of a team you want to be a guy who can pull his own weight, and I was just terrible.
"I couldn't throw strikes. I wasn't a contributor. It makes you feel like added baggage that everybody else in the locker room is having to take care of."
Those first three years in Boston had been sweet. He made 162 relief appearances, and had a 2.88 ERA coming out of the bullpen. His fastball would hit 102 miles per hour at times.
Then, the Red Sox decided to take a look at Bard in the starting rotation in 2010, and by September that year the confidence had been shattered and the tour of minor-league cities across America was about to begin.
He's been with eight big-league organizations since then -- including the Cubs twice and then the Diamondbacks in that non-playing role.
"I was pretty fortunate that the Diamondbacks offered that (job) to me," he said. "I'm not a trained psychologist or sports psych guy in any way. I just had my own experiences to go off of, and a lot of books I'd read trying to fix myself. I'd get to know them as a person, where they are coming from, who they want to be, what they are trying to do, and go from there.
"It was just being the person sitting on the other side of the table, who had been through something similar. I could say, `Yeah, man, that's tough. I know the feeling. Hang in there. You got good things coming.' I'd start with that, and if it progressed to more, we would go deeper. But sometimes it was just being a friend, playing that role. So it wasn't a one-size-fits-all deal. I wasn't there to offer solutions."
There also were times he'd play catch with the players, putting them in an environment where they might be more relaxed.
"It's a good way to connect with guys, and develop relationships," he said.
And then came a wake-up call of his own.
"Maybe it was in the middle of last year, and I was playing catch with some guys from Triple-A and the big leagues with the Diamondbacks, and a couple of them started telling me (the ball) was coming out pretty good. I was just having fun. I didn't have any pressure to throw strikes. They would say, `You need to give it another shot.' I'd laugh it off.
"Playing catch is one thing, but getting on a mound, doing it to big league hitters, that's a whole different story. I just kind of progressed but it put did plant a little seed in my head when I had big league pitchers saying, `Hey, the ball is coming out really good.' I took that into the off-season, and kept throwing for fun. I wouldn't have put more than a one percent chance of trying to pitch again. I just wanted to see what it felt like to get on a mound again, and I continued to surpass my own expectations."
By January he was throwing in the mid-90s and throwing strikes "with ease and I hadn't done that in eight years." That's when he decided it was time to see if there was any team willing to take a chance, which the Rockies were.
"This just happened," he said.
Bard even looks at the early end of spring training and delayed start to a shortened regular-season as "a huge kind of blessing in disguise. I went home (to Greenville, S.C.) and had a great group of guys to work with.
"We had a stadium open to us. I was able to throw 10 or 12 live BPs to Triple-A and big-league hits. I got tons of feedback. I got comfortable with my repertoire and what I am throwing now."
And now he is back in the big leagues.
"I am thankful to the Rockies for including me in their player pool to begin with," he said. "They easily could have left me off. I couldn't be more grateful for all the people that allowed this to happen."
That list of people starts with Bard, himself. He could get all the encouragement in the world, but it was up to Bard to turn that into a positive result -- which he has done.