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Red Sox’ Bard is closing on a more important role

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 16, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The last glimpse of Daniel Bard last season was a moment of personal triumph, though that soon was followed by disaster for the Red Sox. He had entered his second-ever postseason game with the bases loaded, none out, and a four-run lead in the sixth inning of an elimination game. And though he gave up one run while getting out of the jam, it appeared Bard had saved the game, extended the American League Division Series to a fourth game, and continued the Sox’ season.

That wasn’t the case, as closer Jonathan Papelbon faltered against the Angels and the Sox lost the series. But, in a game of disappointment, Bard’s beyond-his-years poise and performance demonstrated the skills of a pitcher who eventually might get a promotion from the sixth inning to the last. At least, that’s what Bard wants.

“If you want to be the best reliever you can be, ultimately that probably ends up being the closer,’’ Bard said yesterday, having arrived to spring training early. “That’s where usually the most talented, the most successful guys [go], what they end up doing. That’s my goal. I don’t know if it’ll happen here or somewhere else, two, three, five years down the road. But, yeah, that would be my probably ultimate goal.’’

While the Sox already have someone to finish games - Papelbon was just signed to a $9.35 million deal for 2010 - there are no assurances he will be the closer in the long run, given that neither side has seemed eager to work out a multi-year deal. The Sox do own Papelbon’s rights through the 2011 season before he reaches free agency. And Bard could be the answer.

“I don’t think you can truly know if a guy’s a closer until you put him in that role,’’ Bard said. “But you’ve seen so many guys come through a set-up role into a closing job - [Mariano] Rivera did it, a handful of other guys have done it along the way. It seems to be a logical progression as far as kind of working your way into more pressured situa tions. I think that’s the best way. I’m no GM or anything, but we’ll see what happens.’’

But, for now, Bard is concentrating on more pressing matters. Like his changeup.

“Probably threw 20 of them the whole year,’’ Bard said of the 2009 season. “There’s so many situations where I would think, ‘OK, this kind of situation kind of calls for a changeup.’ If there’s a guy on second base, guy on third, important run, I don’t want to get beat on my third-best pitch. What I want to do this year is make it so I don’t have that feeling, so I can say the situation calls for a changeup and have the confidence that I’m going to get an out on it.’’

Many pitchers come to Florida looking to refine or add pitches (often changeups). Bard, who threw for the sixth time off the mound yesterday, said he had built enough confidence in the pitch last season to where he threw it two or three times in the playoffs, getting a strikeout and a ground ball on it. But he’s still not entirely comfortable with it.

He compared the pitch to Josh Beckett’s version, an 88 mile per hour change-of-pace that has some sink. The difference from Beckett’s version remains the command, which Bard is attempting to improve.

It is, in a way, a relief for Bard to simply have to work on pitches. He is no longer trying to prove himself, having established himself over his rookie season. He became a crucial part of the bullpen after his major league debut in May, solidifying the relief corps with a fastball that runs from the high-90s to triple digits. The near certainty that he will spend the upcoming season in Boston takes away the edge, makes him more at ease, and lets him focus solely on the work.

He said he’s throwing at about 85 percent at this point, with the reporting date for pitchers and catchers Thursday.

“You’re not cutting it completely loose,’’ Bard said. “But in order to get that arm strength built up, you have to be getting close to 100 percent. So it’s getting there. It feels good. I feel healthy. Arm feels like it’s getting strong. So that’s, to me, what matters - how it feels, not so much looking at where the ball’s going. It’s been OK. I’m excited to get in there and face some hitters soon.’’

Given how Bard pitched last season - a 3.65 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings - the message after the playoffs was that he should carry his momentum through the offseason. He might not have been perfect in his first season in the majors, but he established himself as an important part of the bullpen, a reliever on whom the Sox can rely on even in the biggest spots.

“To some extent, you feel like you’ve proven that you can perform on that level and in the playoff stage,’’ Bard said. “I think the other people, coaching staff and stuff, it gives them some assurance of what they’re going to get. But, to me, the work doesn’t change. You’re still going to prepare the same way for the season.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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