Just a few feet from where Clay Buchholz spoke, as the notebooks and cameras clustered near the starting pitcher's locker, Daniel Bard stood in relative serenity last night. The annual major league trading deadline is now just three days away, but rest assured that no one will get within an arm's length of the Red Sox' latest phenom.
And so on and on it goes at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox posted an 8-3 win over the Oakland A's last night as the hype over Bard continued to grow: another night, another appearance, another pair of strikeouts. That's 19 whiffs in 10 1/3 innings this month. Boston's blossoming setup man has struck out 19 of the last 35 batters he has faced -- that is a whopping 54.3 percent -- and the oooohs and aaaahs are now coming from executive offices throughout the game just as surely as they are coming from the capacity crowds at Fenway.
On the field and off, Bard is blowing everyone away.
One thing about the trading season: teams get so entrenched in the bargaining that reality gets distorted. It's like an arbitration hearing without the money. One side pumps up the commodity it is trying to sell, the other picks it apart in hopes of bringing down the price. If the players in question ever had the luxury of overhearing the conversations, they'd emerge with either an even more distorted sense of self-importance or an incurable inferiority complex.
Last week, two of the game's executives, despite being hundreds of miles away from one another, were downright stereophonic in their assessment of the Red Sox. The Sox are growing arrogant, they said. They overvalue their prospects. The success of young Boston players from Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon to Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury has created an unrealistic outlook in the Boston organization, not to mention an inflation of the Boston farm system perpetuated by the Sox' subwoofers in the media.
Yes, with regard to drafting and player development, the Red Sox have been good. But they have not been that good because there is a great deal of luck involved, too.
All of this brings us to Bard, who is becoming to baseball what Ernie Els is to golf: The Big Easy. Listed at 6 foot 4 and 200 pounds, Bard looks like he's playing catch with a 12-year-old when he delivers the ball to home plate. The radar gun nonetheless lights up like a Roman candle. Every time Bard enters a game, fans at Fenway begin sliding forward in their seats as if preparing for the grand finale at the Esplanade on the Fourth of July.
Of course, because Bard is here and succeeding in the major leagues now, eyes are popping just as surely as Jason Varitek's catcher's mitt. The numbers support the prognosis. That was hardly the case last year with Buchholz, whom one of the two executives recently labeled as, at best, a middle-of-the-rotation starter with a questionable frame. And it is not the case now with Lars Anderson, the 6-4, 215-pound potential slugger who is batting .260 with a .389 slugging percentage this year in Double-A. Anderson, said the same official, is not quite the hitter the Red Sox are making him out to be.
But Bard? There are no real arguments about Daniel Bard or, for that matter, budding prospect Casey Kelly. The difference is that Bard is now vaporizing hitters at the major league level. The one question about Bard, conceded one of the two executives, is that his "makeup'' remains a question, which is to say that no one really knows yet if he has the inner stuff of a big-time closer. There really is no way to know that until Bard has to take the mound again after a badly blown save. On the field and off, Bard could be as pressurized as Jonathan Papelbon or as downright cool as Mariano Rivera, but what matters, in the end, is what is inside. None of us watching from afar ever should confuse perception with reality, personality with character.
In the end, what the Red Sox have here is perhaps their most valuable commodity in the hours leading up to 4 p.m. on Friday, when the baseball season effectively starts anew. Maybe Daniel Bard will be the next Kyle Farnsworth; maybe he will be the next Papelbon. At the moment, he looks far more like the latter than the former, a shiny new toy working absolutely perfectly after just being pulled out of the box.
Last night, just as Buchholz was preparing to leave the clubhouse in anticipation of his first start this year at Fenway tonight, Buchholz said he was "pretty confident'' he would remain with the Sox through the trading deadline on Friday. The likelihood is that he will stay. Meanwhile, the man who could be Buchholz's closer someday is continuing his meteoric ascension to cult-figure status, that rare kind of talent that can electrify nearly 40,000 people in the span of maybe 15 pitches.
Daniel Bard is going places just as July 31 nears, it seems, but you can be fairly certain that Red Sox have no intention of letting him go anywhere.
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