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Red Sox 5, Athletics 3

Welcome relief

Bard’s work helps Red Sox hold off the A’s

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Baseball has reached a point where every pitcher in the bullpen has been slapped with a title. There’s the closer, the set-up men, the lefty specialist, the long reliever.

As the game proceeds, managers paint by numbers and drop relievers into their appointed slots. That lessens the chance of bruising egos or, worse, strategy being questioned.

Daniel Bard does not fit any of those definitions. Red Sox manager Terry Francona has the freedom to use the hard-throwing righthander when needed.

That moment yesterday came in the sixth inning. The Sox had a three-run lead on the Oakland Athletics, but starting pitcher Clay Buchholz had loaded the bases with one out and was over 100 pitches.

Bard sped through a dozen or so warm-up pitches, jogged to the mound, and ended the crisis in six pitches, striking out Cliff Pennington and getting Coco Crisp to pop to shortstop.

The Sox went on to a 5-3 victory, their fourth in five games. Buchholz earned the win and Jonathan Papelbon ended up with a save. But it was Bard who locked down the team’s first road victory in eight tries this season.

“That was the game right there,’’ said Francona. “You guys have heard me talk about it time and time again that the game can be won in the sixth or seventh. For me, that was it. He came in and stopped it.’’

Bard likes the sound of that.

“My job is ‘intense middle relief,’ ’’ he said. “But that’s too much to say. Maybe you can call me ‘the stopper.’ ’’

In college baseball, “closer’’ is a catch-all term for a team’s relief ace, the pitcher who comes in to snuff out rallies when needed. Bard’s younger brother, Luke, has that job at Georgia Tech. One of Bard’s best friends, Athletics prospect Andrew Carignan, had it at North Carolina when they played there.

“In college, they don’t define the closer like they do in the big leagues,’’ Bard said. “That’s what I do now. It’s satisfying because you can impact the game. When they need me, I pitch. I just have to be ready.’’

Bard, an intellectually curious person, found a statistic on Fangraphs.com called Shutdowns and Meltdowns. It measures how a relief pitcher affects the ability of his team to win based on how much the statistical probability of victory changed when he was in the game.

Bard was fourth in baseball with 38 Shutdowns last season.

“People should Google it, it’s interesting,’’ he said. “It’s just another way to look at things.’’

Francona doesn’t need statistics to know how valuable Bard is to his team.

“It’s a big weapon,’’ said the manager. “We have the ability to pitch him with the game on the line and he’s one of the best in the league. He can get lefthanders; he can obviously get righthanders. He holds runners. When there are runners on base, that’s who we want to bring in.’’

Buchholz (1-2) had pitched well for five innings, holding the Athletics to five hits. But when he loaded the bases, he gratefully handed the ball over.

“I think he’s done it four times now in my career, come in with the bases loaded and less than two outs,’’ said Buchholz. “That’s definitely not the position you want to leave a reliever in because they’re going out there thinking they don’t want to give up the runs for the starter.

“That’s why he’s that guy. He’s a big presence in our bullpen.’’

The rest of the bullpen did not fare as well.

After Bard held down the Athletics in the seventh, Bobby Jenks came out for the eighth. He struck out Mark Ellis before walking Landon Powell. Singles by Andy LaRoche, Pennington, and Crisp cut the lead to 5-2. Jenks then struck out Daric Barton with a curveball, the second one he has thrown this season.

“I didn’t really have a feel for it until today,’’ he said. “Perfect pitch at that time.’’

Francona did not take any chances, bringing in Papelbon. The closer struck out David DeJesus with a splitter in the dirt to end the inning.

The ninth inning wasn’t as easy. Hideki Matsui led off with a single. Ryan Sweeney popped to short, but Papelbon then hit Ellis with a pitch before Powell singled in a run. Papelbon got the final two outs for his third save, getting pinch hitter Josh Willingham on a pop to first base and Pennington on a pop to short.

Oakland left 15 runners on base, eight in scoring position.

Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez entered the game having allowed one earned run in 19 innings, but the Sox touched the lefthander for four runs over six innings.

Carl Crawford had an RBI single in the second inning. Kevin Youkilis (2 for 4) had a solo home in the fourth and Jed Lowrie a two-run shot in the sixth. The home run, Lowrie’s third in five games, sliced through a rainstorm that hit just as he walked to the plate.

J.D. Drew added a solo home run in the seventh inning off Jerry Blevins.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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