In Toronto, Daniel Bard pitched the saddest 1 2/3 innings of his career. In his 55 pitches, he threw just 24 strikes, hitting two batters and walking another six. He allowed five runs.
In Detroit, Phil Hughes pitched one of his best games ever. He went nine innings for the first time in his career, struck out eight Tigers and gave up just one run.
Both teams left the field that day with 5-1 scores. The Yankees won; the Red Sox lost. But aside from the statistical similarities, the outcome also caught — like two cars passing each other — the ascension of one reliever-turned-starter, while the other young hopeful saw his starting career sidelined, perhaps irretrievably.
Bard is now in the minors, trying to regain his pitching form and mechanics. Since being welcomed to the Red Sox rotation this year in the No. 5 role, he has floundered. A decent first few starts (while the rest of the rotation was a mess) were promising, but Bard soon lost basic control of where he was putting his pitches. The high walk numbers soon become inability to replicate pitches at all, and Bard couldn't even patch an inning together at the end. He's now in Triple-A, hunting for the fire and precision that made him one of Boston's best relievers and, at one time, its next closer.
Hughes, on the other hand, seems to have finally turned the corner on the strange journey he's taken through starting and relieving roles. Hughes came up for the Yankees in 2007, the same year as the much more highly touted Joba Chamberlain.
Chamberlain was a fire-throwing phenom, while Hughes was seen as a capable producer. But as the Yankees tried to fill holes in their rotation, both young guns were quickly caught in a strange waffling of roles. One was starting while the other was relieving. Then it swapped. Chamberlain flamed out as a starter after an attack of midges in Cleveland, and Hughes won 18 games in the rotation.
The Yankees finally settled into having Chamberlain as a reliever and Hughes as a starter, but that firm plan soon slipped, too, after Chamberlain was lost indefinitely to Tommy John surgery and the aftereffects of a trampoline jump gone wrong. Hughes, meanwhile, was horrible this year in a starting role.
What finally happens with those two pitchers will be a question for the next couple of years, but their situation is very telling right now in terms of what it means to the Yankees' American League East rival, the Red Sox. After the seeming decimation of two incredibly talented young pitchers in New York, the Red Sox were still blindsided when things went badly for Bard.
But Bard's decline can still be merely a hiccup. Boston can still right the situation — especially considering how things turned out for Hughes, who now appears to be back to solid starting form.
What's curious about both situations is not that Bard and Hughes weren't suited to transition from relievers to starters. Both were capable and effective when they first entered the rotation. The problem appears to be not the change in role, but rather how the change in role was approached.
As Bard made his way to the minors, he said he felt as if he had been slowly changing the way he had been pitching. He talked about his arm slot moving, or his pitches coming out different. He even admitted to a change in mentality, where he didn't come at batters with the same pitch selection or passion that he may have had in his relief role.
Hughes, after his great start in Detroit, has said that he wanted to rediscover this season what made him so good as a reliever, when he could just pump pitches past batters. He said he tried to approach innings that way — three guys at a time, get 'em out, and only think about that. Without the burden of the full game on his mind, he could channel the focus and narrow pitch selection that was so successful for him in the past.
It looks like his change in mindset may have worked. He was horrible in his May 28 outing against the Angels, getting lit up for seven earned runs in just over five innings. He made the decision to tweak things after that and has since had the complete game against Detroit and another quality start.
In Bard's case, the slippage was slow — no one brought him a manual saying how a starting pitcher worked, or that he should change things. But he now knows that, whether he's a reliever or a starter, he has to find the same basic things that work for him every time. When he latches on to the mindset, approach and pitch selection that get him consistent success, he'll be able to pitch well in any situation. For him, it's been a work in progress that everyone was watching — and that, when it got away from him, everyone got to scrutinize. But now is the perfect time of the season to buckle down and figure out the basics he needs.
Bard will no doubt find something that works for him, and if he ever wonders, he can look across the division to another guy who has done the same. Just as the Red Sox are trying to help Bard work through what quickly became a crumbling transition, the Yankees stuck with Hughes even as he posted stagnant numbers to start the year. New York now has its 18-game winner back on its hands, and better yet, the Yankees have a pitcher who trusts his own stuff and knows what works.
The transition from reliever to starter can be a shaky one, and the question of whether teams should even be trying it — especially with great young talent — is still in the air. But for the Red Sox right now, Bard can live to fight another day. It can be done.
"It's not a secret that's where I'm most comfortable," Bard said of being a reliever, according to ESPN. "The adrenaline rush that comes with it, the added pressure of getting loose quick and everything, that's where I'm comfortable. Still, while we can say that, I'm not ready to give up on starting."
And he shouldn't have to. He, like Hughes, just has a find a way to take the bullpen rush into the rotation.
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