Editor's note: Each day this week, Tony Lee will cover Daniel Bard's rise from high school dominance to setup man for the Boston Red Sox. Check out Tuesday's story, when Bard chose development in college and the Cape League instead of a contract with the Yankees.
Daniel Bard's performance in the Cape Cod League during the summer of 2005 put him on the watch list for just about every accolade imaginable. He was preseason everything, from All-American to a candidate for the Roger Clemens Award, given annually to the top pitcher in the country.
Despite a very solid season, which included a 9-4 record and a 3.64 ERA, Bard fell shy of those honors. He was also overshadowed in a big way by teammate Andrew Miller, who did win the Roger Clemens Award as well as the Baseball America National Player of the Year Award.
It was Bard, however, who nearly stole the show in the end.
Given the ball in the third and deciding game of the championship round of the College World Series against Oregon State, Bard scripted a story that will be told for years to come on the Chapel Hill campus.
"He saved the best outing of his UNC career, in my opinion, for his last game," said Tar Heels head coach Mike Fox. "The national championship game in 2006 was one of the most dominating performances I'll probably ever watch, especially on that kind of stage."
The fact that UNC lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Oregon State will not take away from what Bard did that day in Omaha, Neb., where he emptied the tank with over 100 fastballs, including 42 in a row at one point. He was charged with just one earned run in 7 2/3 innings overall, allowing six singles and one walk.
Bard gave up two runs on a base hit in the fourth inning, the first frame that saw him throw anything off-speed.
"Only four breaking balls in that game," Fox said. "I wish he hadn't thrown those four. [On] two of them, they got base hits, and that was the difference in the game. If we had started that game and said, 'Daniel, you throw fastballs the entire game,' and I'm not sure they would've gotten a base runner.
"I've never seen an outing where a kid was throwing that hard and sustaining that kind of velocity deep into the game and just pounding it. He was ahead of every hitter. And really, I think Oregon State coach Pat Casey will tell you, his hitters didn't have much of a chance against his fastball."
The fact that nobody could touch Bard's fastball on the biggest stage college baseball had to offer showed one thing — it was a dominant pitch. The fact that the very few times he threw anything other than the fastball reinforced the reputation that would follow Bard from North Carolina into the Red Sox system — he needed to master a secondary pitch.
This much was obvious in 2007, his first season after signing with Boston, which took Bard 28th overall in the 2006 draft. Struggling to find the strike zone while working on refining his off-speed stuff, the right-hander was 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA in 22 starts split between Single-A stops Greenville and Lancaster, working through an elbow strain along the way. There were even uglier portions of the stat line — in 75 innings, Bard walked 78 batters while recording only 47 strikeouts.
When Bard signed with the Red Sox in August 2006, he said that there were "certain things that point to [both starting and relieving as] being a good role for me" and that he could see himself "succeeding either way."
However, soon after the organization made the decision to convert Bard into a reliever and send him to Hawaii to get his feet wet in a fall league, it became clear that the bullpen was his path to success.
Although control problems persisted (15 walks in 16 2/3 innings), Bard yielded only two runs on eight hits while serving as a reliever in Hawaii. The small sample was just enough for the Red Sox to make a call; Bard would stay in the bullpen in 2008. Once he found out for sure, it was all systems go.
"The biggest thing was becoming a reliever, which is something I found out in spring training," Bard said during the summer of 2008. "It's obviously a lot different mentality than starting, a little more in your face. You have to come in and be aggressive, and that's what I've tried to do this year, and it's what I think I've done."
It really didn't take much thinking to determine that Bard was reborn. In 15 games at Greenville, he had a phenomenal 43 strikeouts against four walks in 28 innings, and he then went 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA at Double-A Portland. Much of his success was attributable to an improving and sometimes biting slider, the secondary offering that Sox officials were hoping to see someday.
Bard's 2008 campaign had earned him Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors. Just a year after he walked more men than innings pitched over the course of 22 ugly starts, he had rocketed up the organizational depth chart and placed himself on the precipice of major league stardom.
Check back Thursday for a look at Bard's rookie campaign with the Red Sox.