Bard untouchable for Red Sox

Bard untouchable for Red Sox

BALTIMORE -- Untouchable.

That word sums up Daniel Bard in a couple of different ways. For that is essentially what the Red Sox made him when teams came calling prior to the July 31 Trade Deadline. And that is pretty much what he's been to those who have stood 60 feet, six inches away over the past month.

Here is another word that applies to Bard: Eye-popping. Again, it has multiple uses. The first would be his velocity, which can hit triple digits every so often, and frequents 98 to 99 mph. And the other area where it fits so nicely are the numbers.

The run of utter dominance for the rookie started on June 28, when Bard fired a shutout inning against the Braves. For that was the opening of an ongoing 12-outing, 13-inning span, during which Bard has allowed four hits and no walks while striking out 23.

Yes, Bard heard that the Red Sox made him off-limits.

"My agent kind of told me that," said Bard. "He spoke to [the Red Sox], and it's kind of what he gathered from them. It's nice -- it's nice to be wanted by the team that you're playing for."

A lot of teams would want a pitcher like Bard, whom the Red Sox selected in the first round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.

When he was first called to the Major Leagues in mid-May, manager Terry Francona went to great lengths to protect Bard and not throw too much at him too fast.

Almost always, Bard came into the game when the Red Sox were trailing. If he came in with a lead, it was a sizable one.

There are no longer many restrictions, as Francona has taken the kid gloves off his flame-throwing setup man and is open to using him in just about any situation.

"With time and some consistent results, I think it's given them some more confidence in me," said Bard. "I started out well for three or four weeks. Everyone was kind of feeling out, 'Is it a fluke that he's doing this and what not?'

"Then I had a couple of rough outings [in June], one in Washington, one in Philadelphia. I think I kind of had to have a couple of weeks to kind of build the confidence back from that for me and for the coaching staff as well. At this point, you have to ride a hot streak when you can. It doesn't happen all the time. I'm just blessed to be in this position and I'm going to enjoy it while I can."

Should the Red Sox get to the postseason, they could have a dominant 1-2 punch in which Bard sets up All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon.

"We're seeing a young man right in front of our eyes mature," said Francona. "I don't care how old you are. What he's done this last six weeks has been pretty special and fun to watch."

At the same time, as catcher Jason Varitek points out, Bard is still a work in progress, at 24 years old.

"He's getting there," Varitek said. "We just have to continue to always understand that he is learning and he's developing. As he continues to pitch, he'll continue to do that."

The heat has always been there for Bard. That is a given. But as he found out in some of his early Major League outings, fastballs can be hit at this level, particularly when there isn't a consistent secondary pitch to go to.

So Bard went back to the drawing board on his slider, first altering his grip and then adding another nuance that has made a world of difference.

"I used to look at the mitt," said Bard. "If I'm trying to throw it for a strikeout pitch, I'd look at the catchers mitt. What I needed to be doing was looking at a lower target where I wanted the ball to finish.

"When I was trying to throw to the mitt, and those were the breaking balls I was leaving up, especially with two strikes, it was a waste pitch. Where if it's a ball that finishes down, if it's a ball, it still serves a purpose. [The hitter's] got that in the bag, thinking, he needs to respect that. It makes the next fastball look harder or you come back with a breaking ball again. It still serves a purpose, rather than the ball that misses up."

The other thing that has become obvious to Bard is how crucial it is to get ahead in the count. In the Minor Leagues, his stuff was so dominant that it didn't matter a lot of the time. Now it does.

"Baseball is a game where you get into grooves," said Bard. "I feel like I have two pitches working very consistently for me, and I'm throwing them both with confidence. I think the biggest thing is just getting myself into good counts, 0-2, 1-2 -- I'm getting a lot of those counts. That comes from just trying to pitch to contact early or they're taking it for strike one, strike two, or they're fouling balls off. That makes it a lot easier pitching in counts like that."

Bard isn't just learning on the fly, but doing it for a contender.

"He's definitely evolved," said Red Sox ace Josh Beckett. "That would be a good word. From a guy who kind of threw whatever when he first came up, now he's learned to pitch at this level. It's pretty fun to watch."

Just don't tell that to the hitters who have stood in the box against Bard over the past few weeks with nothing to show for their efforts.

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.