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Bard ready to toe the starting line

A fresh start in spring will help Josh Bard put a miserable September behind him. A fresh start in spring will help Josh Bard put a miserable September behind him. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 15, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure believes that converting Daniel Bard from setup man to starting pitcher should not be akin to brain surgery.

McClure, a 19-year major league pitcher, did it himself at age 30, and in the “old days,’’ he pointed out, pitchers often came up as relievers, spent a couple of years learning their craft in the bullpen, then were then given a chance to start.

“We all used to do it,’’ McClure said. “A lot of us were brought up through the pen and then went into the starting rotation. If you’re going to look at Bard, go back 30-40 years ago. Even Jim Palmer started out of the bullpen.

“Back then, you’d get your feet wet, develop a third pitch, and then, ‘Let’s look at this guy and see how he does.’

“He’s got his feet wet as far as being a reliever. He’s had success already as a pitcher in the big leagues, so that’s not a transition. The Orioles were famous for doing it. It’s old school.’’

With the Royals in 2007, McClure helped Joakim Soria stretch out as a starting pitcher in spring training. The Royals wanted him to develop all four of his pitches, but when the time came to keep Soria on the team, they put him in the bullpen, and he’s been there ever since.

“We did it with Kyle Farnsworth two years ago,’’ McClure said. “Kyle went to 5-6 innings as a starter in spring training and actually became a better relief pitcher as a result. He started to use a two-seam fastball, a little cutter, and then had a heck of a year with Tampa Bay last year.’’

In both of those cases, the reliever-turned-starter in spring training stayed a reliever.

“I’ve talked to a lot of guys who made this transition,’’ said Bard, “McClure being one of them when he played and a couple of other guys with other teams. If you’re throwing 75 innings out of the pen and throwing every other day, it’s just as much wear and tear on your arm as throwing 100 pitches every five days or 200 innings.

“Guys who have done both say it’s just as tough and you’re just as tired when the season ends.’’

Being a starter, said Bard, may actually save his arm.

“I was throwing with a sore arm in about two-thirds of my outings,’’ he said, “and now I won’t have to throw with a sore arm at all.’’

Bard is trying to get into a starting mentality. Every five days vs. being ready every day. There’s a difference, for sure, but ever since he mentioned starting to the Red Sox brass at the beginning of the offseason, he has been excited about seeing it through.

How will Bard change his pitching style?

“Not too much,’’ he said. “Physically, getting my body ready to throw 100 pitches rather than 15 or 20 is an obvious change. I’m still going to go out there and try to get outs. I don’t think you’re going to see a huge difference in the style of how I pitch.’’

Obviously, there could be a change in velocity. Bard was a 98-100 m.p.h. thrower out of the pen. As a starter, he may have less velocity.

“I haven’t had a gun on me,’’ he said. “It doesn’t feel like it should be any different. I’m sure I’ll learn to pace myself as I get more experience.

“Going back to college, I was able to hold my velocity pretty well, probably not as high as when I was relieving, but mid-90s.’’

McClure said there will be sure signs as to whether Bard is handling the transition: 1. if he can repeat his delivery for at least six innings; 2. if he can come up with a third pitch that is a contrast to his other two; 3. if he can find a “comfortable’’ velocity at which he can command his pitches.

“I like it, because it’s something different and new,’’ Bard said. “I love the excitement of pitching every day, but this is different and it will challenge me in new ways. But I’m ready for it.’’

While Bard hasn’t had to trot out the changeup very often, he said, “I’m excited to use it more and throw it against righties and it’ll be fun. It’s kind of a splitter or a sinker at 91-92 m.p.h. with arm-side movement. If I can get it up into the high 80s and low 90s, that would be ideal.’’

The Rangers have undertaken similar experiments the last two spring trainings. Last year, they converted Alexi Ogando from a reliever to a starter, and he went 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA and made it up to 169 innings. He did fade a tad in August but rebounded in September. This spring will feature the conversion of closer Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation.

The Yankees tried it with Joba Chamberlain and it was a failure.

The Red Sox tried it with Jonathan Papelbon in 2007, and Papelbon ended the experiment himself midway through camp.

The Blue Jays’ Brandon Morrow made a more gradual progression from reliever to starter.

Derek Lowe did it many years ago with the Red Sox, as did Justin Masterson.

For Bard, the new role may also be a chance to escape what transpired last September when the Red Sox turned into complete flops. Bard was part of the failure with a 10.64 ERA, allowing 13 earned runs in 11 innings in 11 September appearances.

“You can’t help but think about it,’’ he said. “But it’s over with. It was a fluke thing for the team and for me personally.

“I’m not stupid. I know if I pitched better, we’d be playing in the playoffs. It is what it is. It’s past.

“I think I had five good months and one really bad one and it just happened to be that one bad one came in September. Focusing on this new role is going to help me focus on this and get past that.’’

There may not be a more important “experiment’’ for this team, which so far has failed to secure another dependable starting pitcher via trade or free agency.

Bard could ease that angst.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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