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Sports

Daniel Bard could be losing grip on starting spot

FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Red Sox started spring training with eight pitchers competing for two spots in the rotation - so many candidates that manager Bobby Valentine scheduled extra games to get them all work.

Injuries have steadily whittled that number down. Carlos Silva arrived with a sore shoulder, never pitched, and was released. Aaron Cook and Ross Ohlendorf were held back for 10 days because of lingering shoulder injuries and fell out of the race.

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Andrew Miller missed a start with a sore elbow, then strained his left hamstring. Now, at best, he will be in the bullpen for Opening Day. The same is true for Vicente Padilla, who strained his right hamstring in the weight room.

With two weeks remaining before the start of the season, three pitchers are left for those two spots: Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard, and Felix Doubront.

Bard, the prohibitive favorite to grab a spot at the start of camp, could be the odd man out.

Bard has thrown 12 2/3 innings over four games and walked 10, a statistic that concerns Valentine far more than Bard’s 7.11 earned run average. He also has only six strikeouts.

A pitcher who often dominated as a set-up man has been less explosive as a starter and has had problems with control. Going deeper into games has not been a problem.

Bard started against Toronto Tuesday, giving up three runs on five hits over five innings. He recovered nicely in that game, retiring 12 of his last 14 batters after the Jays scored three runs in the second inning.

But Valentine was critical afterward, wondering why only one of Bard’s 83 pitches was a changeup. In Valentine’s mind, Bard needs an effective third pitch to complement his fastball and slider.

“He’s got to understand that pitch,’’ Valentine said. “It could really be that pitch that gets the contact when we need some soft contact situations.’’

Bard explained a day later that he is still refining the grip on his changeup and didn’t want to throw it in a game.

Then on Thursday, during an interview with WEEI, Bard said he also wanted to make sure his primary pitches were sharp, so he eschewed the changeup.

“Fastball, slider - that’s where I’ve made my money the last three years,’’ Bard said. “If I’m not 100 percent confident in those two pitches going into the season, then something is not right.

“It doesn’t matter what my changeup is if my two best pitches aren’t fully ready. So I really went into this last [start] wanting to establish my fastball in the zone and use the slider as my put-away pitch.’’

Valentine was hoping to have a conversation with Bard in the next few days.

“He wanted to get his two pitches working, I get that,’’ Valentine said.

The decision to give Bard a chance to start was made before Valentine became manager. For now, he’s willing to see where it leads.

“I think he’s, like, sticking to the plan and ready to adjust if necessary,’’ Valentine said.

Bard is scheduled to pitch again Sunday.

“Right now it is, yeah,’’ Valentine said when asked whether Bard would be starting.

Bard is not the only part of the equation. Aceves has allowed one earned run over nine innings in major league games while Doubront has given up four over 10 2/3 innings.

The other factor is which of the three would fit best in the bullpen. Bard is one of the premier set-up men in the game. Aceves was outstanding in a wide-ranging relief role last season, while Doubront has only 23 games of major league experience.

Bard still expects he will get one of the starting spots.

“You know, it’s hard to even talk about right now, given that my mind is still fully on starting,’’ he said during the radio interview. “It’s not just a good mind-set to be in.

“If it does come to a case where I need to go back to the bullpen, I accept it for what it is, make the most of it, and try and help the team that way. But right now I’m still a starter in my own eyes, and let everyone else make their own decisions.’’

“I’m not going to tell them how to do their jobs by any means. I think they’ve seen enough, good or bad. They’re going to make a decision.’’

Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona was at JetBlue Park Thursday night, calling the Yankees game for ESPN. He knows all three pitchers.

“I didn’t see Felix pitch much last year because of the health issues, but I’ve always kind of liked him,’’ Francona said. “Aceves and Bard are going to be good wherever they pitch. It’s just wherever they fit.

“That’s what [the Red Sox] will determine, where they fit. They’re good pitchers.’’

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

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