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Ashway: Daniel Bard, MLB's comeback player of the year
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

Ahhh, baseball. Back. Finally.

And if this season unlike any other provides us with nothing else, it has already given us one of the great comeback stories of all time.

Daniel Bard.

Close observers of the game may recall Bard as an excellent reliever with the Red Sox from 2009 through 2011. Primarily used as the setup man, he produced a 2.88 ERA in 192 games. His future looked bright.

But then Bobby Valentine took over as the Sox manager. Among other bright ideas, he chose to deploy Bard as a starter. Bard quickly lost his ability to throw strikes. He wound up walking 43 batters and hitting eight others in only 59 1/3 innings pitched. His ERA ballooned to 6.22.

In 2013, he pitched a single inning for the Sox, making his last major league appearance on April 27. For the rest of that season, through 2017, he pitched in the minors for the Sox, Rangers, Cubs, Cardinals, and Mets. His combined stats: 19 1/3 innings pitched, 69 walks and 16 hit batters. In October 2017, he announced his retirement. He was 32.

Bard recalled his nadir for Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com two weeks ago. It was at the Mets minor league complex in 2017. “I was trying to throw submarine. Not sidearm. Knuckle-scrape submarine. I was on their back fields in Port St. Lucie. They were super patient with me, encouraging. But I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I’m trying to throw bowling balls. I used to throw 100 over the top. Now I’m trying to trick people with top-spin fastballs. It was tough. I’m not even trying to be the same thing I was before. I’m hanging on for dear life. Those were some trying days.”

Bard spent the past two years as a mentor and mental skills coach in the Diamondbacks organization. While focusing on other players’ problems, Bard began to understand his own.

“The ‘yips’ is probably the easiest to understand for people,” Bard told Morosi. “I couldn’t throw a baseball for half of ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17, and then you could probably count the time I was coaching, too — for six-and-a-half years — without thinking about where every part of my body was throughout that throw. Forget trying to hit the target. That’s how it was.

“Throwing a baseball is supposed to be an automatic action. For someone who’s done it as much as I have, it should be as automatic as walking for anybody else. And it was for a long time. And then, all of a sudden it wasn’t.”

Suddenly last summer, just as quickly as the natural feeling of throwing a baseball had left him, it returned.

“Toward the end of 2019, I was on the field a lot, roving around to our minor league teams, spending a little bit of time with our big-league team, and I started feeling really good throwing,” Bard told Morosi. “I was playing catch with guys as a way to connect with them and get to know them. I got some comments from players like, ‘Dude, you’ve still got it!’ I’d say, ‘Nah, a good game of catch doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to translate to the mound.’”

Still, Bard wondered. He kept throwing during the winter in his backyard. That led him to an appearance at the Showcase Baseball Academy, and then a formal showcase in front of scouts. That led to a dozen offers of minor league contracts.

Last Thursday, Rockies manager Bud Black announced that Bard had made the Rockies’ Opening Day roster. On Saturday, Bard entered a major league game for the first time in 2,646 days.

He relieved starter Jon Gray with two out and two on in the fifth inning, and preserved the Rockies’ 2-1 lead over the Rangers by inducing Elvis Andrus to fly out to left. He came back out for the sixth, alternated two outs with two singles, and retired Willie Calhoun on another fly to left, after an 11-pitch battle.

He didn’t walk or hit a single batter. Statcast had his fastball averaging 95.2 mph, topping out at 98.7. Even better, Bard threw 20 strikes in 25 pitches. He also got the win.

“I got him at the end of the dugout,” Black told Thomas Harding of MLB.com, “and he said three words: ‘That was fun!’ The stuff is there … what a great story!”

“It is pretty cool to see that,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward, a teammate of Bard’s on the 2009 Red Sox, told ESPN.com. “Obviously, I’m a baseball fan, so I’m a fan of stories like that.”

“The way I feel now trumps anything I felt from 2012 to 2017 when I retired,” Bard told Chris Cotillo of Masslive.com. “It’s hard to describe. It just feels … throwing and pitching feels natural. It feels fun. Body feels free and easy.”

Overcoming the yips proved a long and arduous process. “It wasn’t something I learned overnight,” he told Harding. “It’s taken practice. It’s taken a lot of intentional work on my part, but hopefully this proves to anybody out there that’s struggling with anything that it can be done.”