DUNEDIN, Fla. - Daniel Bard said after the Red Sox’ 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Blue Jays here Sunday that it was the first time he felt like a starter “rather than a reliever starting.’’ And manager Bobby Valentine, who had been somewhat critical of Bard’s last outing, agreed.
“He looked like [a starter],’’ Valentine said. “I liked him between innings and how he was responding to things. I thought it was a good look. He worked the runners, got ground balls, and got swings and misses when he needed to.’’
Bard should be this team’s fourth starter.
Valentine wasn’t ready to make that declaration after Bard pitched six innings, surrendering five runs on six hits with three walks, five strikeouts, and one hit by pitch. But he looks like a starter now.
“Not really [a timetable],’’ Valentine said. “I don’t think there’ll be a big announcement or anything. It looks like it’s all coming together. No matter who’s pitching, I like our pitching. I haven’t in my mind [decided who the starters will be], but I think it’s going to be an easy decision. It’s not like we’re going to be searching for pitchers to start games.’’
That is debatable, but everyone knew converting Bard from set-up man to starter was going to require patience. To pull the plug now wouldn’t be fair to Bard, and quite frankly, contrary to Valentine’s assessment, the Red Sox are not oozing with starting pitching.
“I liked everything,’’ Valentine said about Bard’s outing, during which he threw 85 pitches. “He had some tough breaks, worked his way out of jams. Had some pitches that could have been called strikes. Didn’t let it affect him. His changeup at times was devastating, his slider was sharp. What wasn’t there to like except for the five runs on the board?’’
Bard could be very good once he learns to incorporate his offspeed pitches, especially his changeup, on a regular basis and either gets strikes or gets hitters to fish for his stuff out of the zone.
When he needs to, Bard still can rear back and throw 96-97 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball. He throws a cutter and a two-seamer on which he should get ground balls. He still needs to stop getting behind on so many counts, but, even with that, he has enough on his fastball to strike guys out.
“I think a lot of good things happened,’’ Bard said. “Shop [catcher Kelly Shoppach] said, ‘How many runs did you give up?’ I said five. He said, ‘It feels like two,’ and I felt the same way. They kept slopping one on there every inning. Every hit fell through or got through. I felt they were hitting good pitches.
“I’m just focusing on the way I threw the ball, and I felt pretty good.’’
Bard elaborated on feeling like a starter vs. a reliever.
“I used all four pitches, a steady mix of all four,’’ he said. “Really felt confident about it. I threw the changeup consistently, but I got some big outs on it. Breaking ball came and went throughout the day. I threw 25-30 two-seamers. I was able to work on a lot of things. Take the five runs out of it and I felt pretty good about it.’’
Maybe the line doesn’t look great, but there were steps forward.
And really, if the Sox end the experiment, what happens then? Unless they decide to deal for some of the available starting pitchers - Washington’s John Lannan, Philadelphia’s Joe Blanton, or a bigger trade for the White Sox’ Gavin Floyd - there’s no reason Bard shouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to get his feet wet.
As a starter, Bard may run out of gas sooner than one would like at this stage, but his upside is higher than the other non-trade options.
Alfredo Aceves is still more valuable in the bullpen because of his ability to pitch multiple roles.
When asked about Aceves Sunday, Valentine, who didn’t watch Aceves’s nightmarish nine-run, 10-hit outing Saturday because he managed the team in Jupiter while Aceves pitched vs. the Phillies in Fort Myers, said, “You know, it’s probably his worst outing since August of a couple of years ago, so he’s due one. I heard he got hit, I didn’t see it. He threw a lot of pitches down the middle. I hope he got enough work in to make it a good day.’’
Valentine said he would have liked to have seen Aceves throw more than 58 pitches, but “I think he’s an exception to most rules. He’s human.’’
As is Bard.
Bard had asked the team to allow him to start. He knew Jonathan Papelbon was likely to leave as a free agent, and rather than say, “I want to be this team’s closer’’ as the heir apparent to Papelbon, he stuck to his guns. About two weeks ago, Valentine asked Bard whether he was all-in regarding being a starter and Bard assured him he was. And the sides have proceeded as if the plan would continue to be executed.
The Sox also have lefty Felix Doubront in the mix. Doubront pitched well for Valentine in Jupiter while Aceves was blowing up in Fort Myers.
There were moments Sunday when Bard was able to overpower Jays hitters and other times he’d get behind in the count and struggle. There was a scary moment when he hit Jose Bautista off the helmet. At first, the umpire called it a foul ball, but after the umps convened, Bautista was awarded first base. The slugger wasn’t pleased; Bard seemed unfazed.
Nor is he panicking about his fate.
“There are other guys who are throwing the ball well and a lot of candidates for two spots,’’ Bard said. “Until I hear otherwise, I’m preparing to be a starter and in my mind I am a starter.’’
Is it unnerving not knowing what he’ll be doing?
“For a little while it kind of gets you to wonder,’’ he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where it’s out of my hands. I’ve put the work in and if that shifts to a bullpen role, I’ll do the same thing. In everything in life if you can’t control it, it’s not worth worrying about it.’’
Would he be disappointed?
“You have to ask me that if it happens,’’ he said. “I’m trying to concentrate on this outing, what I did well and what I can do better.’’
More than the stretching-out physically, Bard thinks the biggest adjustment from reliever to starter has been mental.
“Definitely,’’ he said. “For the first time, I felt comfortable in my pregame routine. I had the times down on when to get ready and how many pitches to throw in pregame bullpen. And just sitting between innings and getting ready for the next one, because I didn’t have a lot of multiple-inning stints last year. I use that time to rest up and get out there the next inning.’’
Bard is a starter in his mind. Valentine is coming around.
Really, at this stage there is no reason to turn back.
Bard is a starter. And that’s the way it should go.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.