Bard looks to make comeback with Rangers
Reliever hopes to make similar return from Thoracic outlet syndrome as Harrison
ARLINGTON -- Daniel Bard did his research, he talked to doctors and physical therapists and he consulted with some prominent pitchers who were afflicted by the same malady.
His quest for answers brought him to the conclusion there is life after Thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, he can become the dominant pitcher that he once was and the right place to see his odyssey through is with the Rangers.
"I'm very appreciative of them," Bard said Wednesday from his home in Mississippi. "It was nice to be pursued by a few different teams. The Rangers came in late in the process but were able to make me feel I was wanted and had the tools to get me back to being 100 percent again.
"Since then I haven't heard anything but good things about them. They have had a lot of experience with this and know how much this surgery can help. It could be 10-12 weeks for some guys or it could be 20 weeks. They know when it's time to push it and when not to hold back."
Bard's freefall from dominant reliever to being cut loose by the Cubs this winter led to him undergoing surgery for Thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder on Jan 2. Four weeks later he agreed to a Minor League contract with the Rangers.
Bard is planning to report with other pitchers on Feb. 16 and begin a throwing program. At that point he will come under the care of pitching coach Mike Maddux and bullpen coach Andy Hawkins, and the Rangers will get a better idea of his recovery process.
Keith Comstock will also likely have a significant role. Comstock is stationed in Arizona year-round as the supervisor of rehabilitation projects and is highly regarded for his work with injured pitchers. Bard won't start throwing off at mound until the end of March and will likely get plenty of time working with Comstock during extended Spring Training.
He may end up being big pals with Derek Holland, who is recovering from surgery on his left knee, and Joseph Ortiz, who suffered a fractured ankle after being run over by a motorcycle in Venezuela. The Rangers hold out hope Comstock could deliver multiple impact pitchers to them sometime later this summer.
"I've proven in the past when everything is working I can be a pretty good pitcher," Bard said. I think if my body is healthy and my arm is healthy, it's a matter of getting out there and getting the repetitions."
Bard, taken by the Red Sox in the first round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of North Carolina, was a key member of the Red Sox bullpen in 2009-11. In that three-year period, he was 5-13 but with a 2.88 ERA, a .190 opponents' batting average and 213 strikeouts in 197 innings. Over those same three years, Rangers closer Neftali Feliz had a 2.55 ERA, a .173 opponents' batting average and 164 strikeouts in 162 2/3 innings.
But in September 2011, Bard was 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA. That may have been the first sign something physically was wrong.
"I think it affected me pretty good," Bard said. "Talking to the doctors and the physical therapists, you can go back to the end of 2011 when I really started to experience it. I wasn't feeling a lot of pain or physical symptoms but it doesn't take much to lose your feel and affect your ability to pitch."
The Red Sox tried to move Bard into the rotation in 2012 and that may have only served to make things worse.
"I think it did with the increased workload and the high volume of pitches," Bard said. "It was just a matter of time, it's really nobody's fault but it just happened that way. Once you start seeing a drop of a few miles per hour in velocity, you start hearing about fixing this or changing your mechanics.
"There are no real signs. You don't think anything is physically wrong so you immediately try to start fixing things and that's usually mechanics. It was just kind of a snowball effect. I was open to trying anything and I got away from being myself when I was 100 percent and throwing the way I'm capable."
Bard was 5-6 with a 6.22 ERA in 10 starts and seven relief appearances for the Red Sox in 2012. He was optioned to Triple-A on June 5 and didn't return in September. His 2013 season was much worse. He made two appearances with the Red Sox, was sent to the Minors and then suffered a pulled abdominal muscle that sidelined him for three months. On Sept. 4, he was designated for assignment and claimed off waivers by the Cubs. His Minor League ERA was 6.46 and the Cubs let him go in December.
Former Red Sox teammate Josh Beckett was the first to suggest Bard might have Thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition where a rib bone in the front of the shoulder presses against a nerve and causes numbness in the arm and hand. Beckett, now with the Dodgers, had just undergone the surgery in July. Former Red Sox trainer Mike Reinold also told Bard that it might be an issue and suggested he get examined by Dr. Greg Pearl, a Dallas specialist.
Bard also spoke with Kenny Rogers and Matt Harrison, two Rangers pitchers who seemed to benefit greatly from the surgery. Harrison underwent Thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in 2009. He spent 2010 mainly as a reliever and then won 32 games as a starter over 2010-11.
Rogers had the surgery in 2001 and came back completely healthy the next year, averaging 15 wins and 203 innings over a period of five seasons.
"In talking with Kenny, he said it added 6-7 miles per hour and his command got better," Bard said. "If you need it, it's amazing what the surgery can do. I'm not saying surgery is going to fix everything on the spot but it's nice to know what really happened."
The Rangers learned last year no pitcher can be considered a completely lost cause. Neal Cotts went four years without pitching in the Major Leagues because of a series of injuries that included Tommy John surgery. Cotts finally made it back with the Rangers last May and was 8-3 with a 1.11 ERA in 58 appearances. He was nominated for the Comeback Player of the Year Award that went to Mariano Rivera.
Not all pitching stories have such a happy ending. But Bard does believe he knows what caused his problems and he knows other pitchers have been successful in overcoming it. He has not lost confidence in himself and if the immense talent is still there, the Rangers are committed to provide every means of support to help him complete his comeback.
"I have no doubt in my mind if I'm healthy what I can do," Bard said.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.