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Bard, bullpen holding steady

Jacoby Ellsbury (right) and Josh Reddick had plenty to celebrate - they combined for five hits in beating the Orioles. Jacoby Ellsbury (right) and Josh Reddick had plenty to celebrate - they combined for five hits in beating the Orioles. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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There isn’t much Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard would change about the first half of his season.

Last night, he extended his career-best scoreless streak to 18 1/3 innings, spanning 17 appearances. He leads the American League with 20 holds - one better than last season before the break - and owns the most holds by a member of the Red Sox before the All-Star break.

The Orioles didn’t have much luck trying to figure out the delivery of the 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound righthander last night. He came in for John Lackey in the seventh inning, and gave up one hit in 1 1/3 innings. Jonathan Papelbon closed out the game to seal the 4-0 victory. Bard’s performance was typical of what the Red Sox have seen from him in what manager Terry Francona called an All-Star caliber season.

The 26-year-old reliever said he has noticed small improvements this season. After an up-and-down first two months, Bard has been dominant. He suffered the loss and a blown save against the Indians May 23 that hiked his earned run average to 3.65. Since then, he hasn’t allowed a run, lowering his ERA to 2.09.

“I think my command continues to get better,’’ he said. “It’s not perfect and there’s still room for improvement, but I know I can feel my command is better than it was a year ago at this time.’’

Overall, the bullpen is getting the job done. On Tuesday against the Blue Jays, Matt Albers came in when Jon Lester left after four innings because of a strained lat muscle. Albers and Alfredo Aceves kept Toronto off the scoreboard until Papelbon saved a 3-2 victory. The next night, Bard and Dan Wheeler combined for a scoreless eighth inning in relief of Tim Wakefield and turned the game over to Papelbon, who got another save in a 6-4 win over Toronto.

On Thursday, Aceves tossed two scoreless innings and Scott Atchison and Bobby Jenks closed out a 10-4 rout of the Orioles. On Friday, Albers, Wheeler, and Atchison combined to throw four scoreless innings in a 10-3 win.

This group prides itself on being a flexible bunch of relievers.

“I think we have quite a few guys who are able to go multiple innings and throw the ball well,’’ Albers said. “In the bullpen, it’s really important that you don’t have one guy that’s only the long guy or only going to go in before the fifth inning. We feel like we can fill in and have done a pretty good job.’’

The Red Sox have won five straight and the relievers are taking advantage of their opportunities. That success can rub off, Bard said.

“Confidence kind of spreads out there,’’ Bard said. “We’re all a pretty tight-knit group. We’ve had some names interchange, but it’s been about the same nine or 10 guys out there. We feed off of each other, for sure.’’

As the All-Star break arrives, Bard said he is happy with where he is but is ready for a heavy workload in the second half.

“I’m still relatively young for this game,’’ Bard said. “I think you’re still learning your body. Until you’re at least 30, there’s still room for physical improvement and you can always improve on the mental side, too.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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