Daniel Bard was one of the few bright spots in the Red Sox’ bullpen this season, putting up a 1.93 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in 74 2/3 innings as Jonathan Papelbon’s primary set-up man. It was the culmination of an impressive turnaround, as just a few short years ago the flame-throwing right-hander looked like a bust.

Taken as the 28th overall pick in the 2006 draft out of the University of North Carolina, Bard signed late and didn’t begin his professional career until the following spring. The expectations were high, but his first-year results were nothing short of a train wreck. Utilized as a starter in High-A Lancaster, and then Low-A Greenville, Bard looked every bit the next coming of Steve Blass, walking 78 batters in 75 innings. His ERA was 7.08, his confidence compromised.

The Red Sox moved Bard to the bullpen in 2008, and the results were like night and day. Back in control of the strike zone—and his psyche—Bard saw his ERA plummet to 1.51. Pitching primarily at Double-A Portland, he struck out 107 and walked 30 in 77 2/3 innings.

Two years removed from that turnaround, Bard seems poised to inherit Papelbon’s closer role. In the opinion of many Boston fans, that should happen sooner than later.

David Laurila: I first interviewed you after you were drafted, but before you pitched in your first professional game. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

Daniel Bard: How to pitch in the big leagues. Actually, I’m still trying to figure that out completely.

Looking back, I kind of knew what I had to work with, as far as my abilities go, but I didn’t quite know how to use them. So it’s just been a progression. There were some struggles, as well as some good times, on the way to becoming what I am right now.

DL: In retrospect, did signing late impact you developmentally?

DB: Developmentally, I don’t think so. If anything, it maybe would have been nice to get to know some of the guys that I was going to be around for the next couple of years, but baseball-wise, no. I don’t think it made any difference.

That said, the year after, when I was struggling, I suppose I was like, “Oh, maybe I should have signed early and gotten this tough part over with.” But in the long run, I still made it to Boston in two and a half years, so I’m happy. I wouldn’t trade in anything that got me here.

DL: In that initial interview, I asked how you’d deal with adversity if you were to encounter it in your first season, and you said that you were confident that you would handle it well. Did you?

DB: I think so. I was obviously very frustrated. I wasn’t happy with how baseball was going, but the people that I’m closest to—my family and close friends—basically told me, “Oh, you’re the same person.” They were used to seeing me as a good baseball player, and that wasn’t happening, but while they could see that I was frustrated, they said it didn’t affect me off the field.

There’s more to life than this game, so if anything, I think it was good for me. Like I said, I wouldn’t trade that year for anything.

DL: Going through those struggles, was there a corner of your brain saying, “This isn’t going to work out; what happens now?”

DB: Yeah, I mean that’s always there. Basically, this game can be taken away from you at any moment. That’s a great thing to realize, because it makes you not only want to be better, but also appreciate the other things in life. When I came back the next year, I appreciated everything about this game just a little bit more. I appreciated my teammates and how lucky we are to be able to come to the ballpark every day. This isn’t something that’s just given out, it’s something that we’re very fortunate to be a part of.

DL: You’ve been asked to explain your 2007 struggles countless times. Is your answer any different today than it was a year or two ago?

DB: No. I can attribute it to a few things and I’ve harped on those and talked about them in a thousand different interviews, it seems like. It was just mechanical struggles that led to some mental struggles, including issues like pitching away from contact. One thing led to another, and it took me that full season to work through it.

DL: When you were signed, it was unclear if your future was as a starter or as a reliever. Neither you, nor the organization, seemed to know for sure.

DB: I had always started up to that point, but I always thought, “Hey, if I could get moved to the bullpen and do well, that’s probably my quickest route to the big leagues.” Given how good the starting pitching always is in Boston, and how hard that rotation is to break into… not that I couldn’t have done it, but I always saw relieving as an option. Not necessarily a backup option, as a lot of people look it as, but a good route for my career based on my stuff and the way I pitch.

Mentally, I think it was a good switch, too. I kind of took to the bullpen well in that respect. Who knows what would have happened had I stayed a starter?

DL: In our 2006 conversation, you said that your second-best pitch was either your slider or your changeup, depending on the day. How have those pitches evolved for you?

DB: They haven’t changed a lot, other than having gotten a lot more consistent. The really good ones I was throwing back then were probably as good as the good ones I’m throwing now, it’s just that I could probably do it one out of five times before. Now I can maybe do it four out of five—throw it where I want to with the right kind of movement. It’s just refinement and consistency. That’s basically the difference.

DL: Your fastball is consistently around 98 mph and you occasionally hit triple digits. Just how important is velocity to your game?

DB: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t important. I try to emphasize command over velocity, because the velocity is going to be there as long as the mechanics are good, but like I just said, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t important. There are a lot of pitches I miss right down the middle with, that get fouled off or break a bat, that would probably get hit out of the park if they were five mph slower. You get a little more room for error with extra velocity.

DL: Going back to our original interview one more time, you said that you’re a better pitcher when you’re getting a lot of ground-ball outs rather than a lot of strikeouts. Is that still the case as a reliever?

DB: I still believe that, yeah. To me, if I’m getting ground balls, that means I’m probably pitching down in the zone and throwing a heavy, sinking fastball. Those are two things that tell me I’m locked in and where I need to be in the zone. If I’m getting popups… you’re going to get your popups, but if you’re leaving the ball up, then you’re more likely to get hit.

You do want to elevate at times, but you have to set that up with balls down in the zone, whether they’re fastballs or off-speed pitches. You have to have a guy looking down to make him susceptible to that high pitch.

DL: You had a lower strikeout rate this year [9.2] than you did in 2009 [11.5], yet your overall numbers were better. Is that related to what you just said?

DB: I think that last year I was a little bit effectively wild. At least once or twice an inning I’d miss way outside the zone, maybe with a fastball right at someone’s head—not on purpose—and that can set you up for strikeouts later in the count. This year, my walk numbers aren’t outrageously better, but they’re a little bit better, and I know just from a feel standpoint that I’m around the zone more than I was last year. My command has gotten better. I have a better knowledge of my body, and a better feel for my mechanics, which leads to getting more outs early in the count.

DL: What is the difference between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth inning?

DB: I don’t really have enough experience to tell you yet, but I don’t think that it’s a huge difference. There is enormous pressure, and a lot on the line, in both innings. You can lose the game in either one of those innings, so I don’t see it as being too different. The pay is a lot different. But other than that… once I’ve thrown in the ninth inning a few more times, then I’ll let you know.

DL: By now you’ve heard more than just a few Red Sox fans say, “Daniel Bard should replace Jonathan Papelbon as the closer.” What is your response to that?

DB: You’ve got a four-time All-Star closer in place right now, and you’ve got him under control for another year, so I would say that we’re crazy if we don’t re-sign him. That seems to be the easy and obvious choice, regardless of what it’s going to cost.

 I think that we’ve been a good one-two punch at the end of games, which is something the team has tried to be as consistent as they can with. We obviously weren’t perfect in our bullpen—we had some holes and weak spots throughout the year—but over the long run I don’t think you’re going to find better guys back to back. If the front office sees it the same way, they’ll try to keep us together for at least one more year.  

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Good stuff, David. Thanks.