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He did his level best but outing was uneven

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 11, 2012
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TORONTO - After his first major league start, we drew the following conclusion: Daniel Bard is a work in progress.

The former Red Sox setup man took a 7-3 loss to the Blue Jays Tuesday night at Rogers Centre, lasting five innings and allowing five runs on eight hits. Two of the runs in the sixth inning scored after Bard was taken out of the game by Bobby Valentine, trailing, 3-1. Lefthander Justin Thomas let them score.

Bard had both good stretches and rough ones, mirroring his spring training performances.

At one point he retired seven straight batters, and eight out of nine, but he couldn’t maintain that consistency. He threw his fastball 96 miles per hour for most of the game, but by the sixth his velocity was down to 92 and 93 m.p.h., a sign that fatigue had set in as his pitch count got into the 90s.

Bard didn’t see it that way.

He said for the first time since he’s been a starter he was able to take something off the fastball and preserve his strength when he needed it. He threw his slider, he said, for strikes, and when Valentine took him out he told the manager he had another 25 pitches left in him.

If he’s Boston’s No. 5 starter, he’s certainly not the worst the Red Sox can do.

“I feel I threw the ball better tonight than I did all spring by far,’’ Bard said. “My command was better. Everything they hit, they hit where we weren’t. I just kind of tried to focus on how I felt, and how the ball was coming out of my hand and ignore the bad results.’’

The problem is, at some point you can’t ignore the results because the season has started.

Results are now the only important thing, and the Red Sox are 1-4.

Bard thought like a reliever in the sixth when Valentine came to get him. He didn’t want to give up the ball.

“I think I was at 95 [pitches; he was at 96] and being the first outing of the year it probably made sense. But at the time you always want to be able to get out of your own jam.’’

Bard pointed out that’s what he did often as the setup man. Terry Francona brought him into the toughest situations the past two seasons and Francona always felt Bard was one of the best relievers in baseball.

“I know how every starter feels,’’ Bard said. “You want to get out of your own jam. That’s where I thrive because I’ve done it so much. I felt that I conserved energy really well. My arm felt good.’’

Whenever the No. 5 starter pitches, you expect to have to get into your bullpen relatively soon. And Tuesday night was no exception. Valentine had to use his relievers, and he called it a “dumb’’ move not bringing in Matt Albers with the bases loaded in the sixth and leaving Thomas in the game. He felt Albers might have gotten a ground ball and a double play.

Once through the rotation, the Sox starters haven’t been lights-out so far, which puts pressure on the bullpen.

Felix Doubront looked good in the No. 4 spot after rough starts by Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz in the No. 2 and 3 positions.

The only quality start so far was Jon Lester’s Opening Day outing vs. the Tigers, when he allowed one run over seven innings. Lester will start Wednesday afternoon’s series finale against Ricky Romero.

So when your rotation isn’t producing quality outings, chances are your bullpen isn’t either.

Valentine never has given a definitive answer on whether Bard will stay in the rotation permanently. That will be up to how Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon and maybe even Franklin Morales perform in the late innings. The front office wanted Bard to start and wanted Valentine to execute the plan. And so far they’ve stuck with it.

The Sox knew there would be some growing pains while Bard adjusted and made the full transition.

Starting the sixth, he walked Edwin Encarnacion, then allowed a single to shortstop that Brett Lawrie beat out. That was the end of his outing.

Bard worked out of a jam in the first and allowed just one run, but he gave up two more in the third, allowing four hits.

His true success came against Jose Bautista. He retired the Jays slugger three times, twice on strikeouts.

“Honestly, the only pitch I’d take back is getting too fancy with Encarnacion [on the sixth-inning walk],’’ Bard said. “I felt I was throwing the slider for a strike at will. I went to it at 3-2. I made it a little too good. That’s the only pitch I’d take back all night.’’

Bard thought that of the six ground-ball singles he allowed, half of them might have been fielded on another night.

“All you can ask for is soft contact,’’ he said. “If they’re going to shorten up and poke something somewhere playing on turf, you might as well use it. That’s just smart.’’

Every time Bard takes the mound there will be questions about whether this experiment should continue.

The consensus among scouts who have watched Bard in spring training is that the Sox are wasting him as a starter because he’s too good of a late-inning reliever with a power arm.

“Yeah, it’s easy to look at results,’’ Bard said. “If you can look past that . . . I’m just going through it in my head . . . they had six or seven ground-ball hits. Let’s say half of those get fielded, which is probably a normal night, if we catch three or four of those and get outs on them, that’s probably three runs and about 30 pitches and I’m pitching into the seventh and giving up two runs. I’m looking at it that way. The results obviously stunk and I’m frustrated with it, but I wouldn’t change the way I threw.’’

Valentine said Bard “pitched as well as most of our starters except for maybe Lester. He gave up eight hits and seven were singles. There was a broken-bat double down the left-field line. Most of the singles were two-strike fastballs. He pitched good enough to win. If we scored some runs . . .

“I should have brought in Albers with the bases loaded, maybe we would have won that game.’’

Valentine said he didn’t think he could “push the envelope’’ and keep Bard in after 96 pitches in his first major league start. Maybe the next time Valentine will allow Bard to pitch into the 110s or even 120s.

Fact is, nobody really knows whether Bard will make his 30 starts or whether he’ll make three starts and head back to the pen.

He could end all speculation by dominating as a starter.

Right now, as good as he feels about himself, the results simply don’t warrant that commitment.

Because for a major league starter, it’s all about the results.

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

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