FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Set aside the thought, Daniel Bard said, that the guys stepping into the batter’s box against him were mere college boys Thursday afternoon.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bunch of college kids or the Yankees," he said. “Everyone wants to do well their first time out."
For Bard, making a good first impression has taken on added import this spring, given the season he literally tried to forget until he finally picked up a ball in December.
“Nothing like a tough season for motivation," he said. “I think it was a productive offseason, to say the least."
The storyline hardly needs repeating. Bard’s 2012 was a complete washout, the experiment to convert him into a starter instead resulting in a mutant pitcher -- neither starter nor reliever, fractured ego and shattered confidence swept into a dustbin and dumped in Pawtucket. That was a destination no one had foreseen for one of the American League’s premier setup men, least of all Bard.
Facing Northeastern on a February afternoon in the team’s first exhibition of 2013 was the first step toward reclaiming past excellence.
“I’m satisfied," he said after giving up a flared single to Northeastern’s Connor Lyons, then striking out the next three batters in succession in his inning of work. “Not perfect, obviously, but a huge step in the right direction."
The process, Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves said the other day, is not one to be rushed.
“He’s getting back to a really good place mentally," Nieves said. “It’s going to be baby steps. This will be the first test drive. The stuff is there, the explosiveness. Just don’t let his mental side choke his physical side. Let your abilities come out.
“Every day you can’t be thinking too much. Relax, see the glove and hit it. Sometimes you want to fix everything. You can’t do it. But this guy is so talented, it’s just a matter of getting everything on track. That’s being stressed every day, his throwing, everything he does, has been diagrammed in an effective way to bring him back to the way he wants to be."
Bard threw 18 pitches, 13 for strikes. He mixed in a few sliders with his fastball, which sat in the low 90s, not a bad place to be first time out.
Manager John Farrell, the Sox pitching coach when Bard was at his best and who was in an opposing dugout last summer when he struggled, offered a concise description of what needs to happen for Bard to be effective again.
“He went from a guy who was ultra-aggressive and ultra-confident," Farrell said. “With a change in role came a change in mindset. With shorter stints, he’s getting back to that aggressive mentality. I know that’s something he not only set out to establish, but to regain and improve. This was the first step in that process."
Farrell saw an added benefit when Bard mixed in his put-away slider. “He gets his hand back on top of the baseball," Farrell said, describing his slider grip. “When he feels his fastball run away from him on his arm side, that may be a pitch he goes to routinely to get his release point back and command the ball."
There is an upside to having something to prove, Bard said. That was his mindset in 2009, his first big-league camp, when he felt he had a conga line of people to whom he had to prove his worth. That worked out extremely well for both Bard and the Red Sox.
“To me, it’s not much different today, except that people know my name," he said. “I definitely have something to prove."
It doesn’t hurt, he said, that there is a similar pitcher in camp, new closer Joel Hanrahan, who comes out of the same mode stuff-wise.
“I haven’t talked to him much yet, but I’ve watched him and enjoyed when he threw. I think we’re similar from the point we’re both experienced in the late innings. We both have a good fastball and put-away slider, and we’re not pinpoint guys.
“That’s what got me in trouble, trying to be something I wasn’t."
This spring is about finding that inner Bard again. To him, that trumps worrying about a spot in a crowded bullpen.
“For me, the focus is on what I’m doing," he said. “If I throw the ball the way I’m capable of and build on today, things will take care of themselves."