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For Daniel Bard, a disappointing decision and outcome, but a bigger picture

04.16.12 at 4:47 pm ET
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It was, of course, uncharted territory for Daniel Bard. No surprise there.

The right-hander remains in the very formative stages of his career as a big league starter, and so the idea that there will be uncertainty about his usage is natural. On Monday, the dilemma confronted the Red Sox of how long was too long to leave Bard in the game, and in the end, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was left saying that he made the wrong decision following a 1-0 loss by his club to the Rays in the finale of a four-game set.

Bard arrived at the seventh inning having thrown just 87 pitches. To that point, though he’d walked four, he had allowed just three hits while striking out six, and there were few signs that Tampa Bay could do much against him on a day when he featured a swing-and-miss fastball, slider and changeup. Nor was there any indication that he was running out of gas when he started the inning with a two-pitch groundout by Jeff Keppinger and a three-pitch punchout of Jose Molina.

There stood Bard, at 6 2/3 innings and having logged 92 pitches.

“You know, the inning started, he looked good, he got the two quick outs, he got two strikes on the next two guys. I committed at that time he was going to finish the inning or at least try to finish it. It didn’€™t happen,” rued Valentine after the fact. “It was the wrong decision, obviously.”

It was a decision informed in part by the desire to let Bard grow on the mound.

“I wanted to let him know that I believed he could work himself out of a jam,” said Valentine. “He had a couple during the game and did a heck of a job.”

Valentine could have made a move to the bullpen after Sean Rodriguez drew a six-pitch walk (98 pitches), but he didn’t. After the fact, Bard viewed that sequence, and more specifically his full-count offering to Rodriguez, as the pivotal moment of his day.

“The turning point for me was to get two outs and nobody on in the seventh and the nine-hole guy coming up, I’€™ve got to force him to swing the bat. It’€™s as simple as that. I didn’€™t do that. I ended up walking him on a 3-2 count,” said Bard. “I threw my breaking ball. I’€™m OK with the pitch selection because I was throwing that for a strike most of the day. All I’€™ve got to do is throw it for a strike. Nine times out of 10, that’€™s an out. Instead, I threw more of a chase pitch, and he didn’€™t bite. That’€™s the guy I need to get.’€

When Desmond Jennings whacked a 2-2 fastball to center for a single (103 pitches), again, Bard remained in to face the left-handed Carlos Pena, who was 0-for-3 with two walks against Bard in his career prior to Monday.

“Probably should have brought in [Justin] Thomas,” Valentine said of the left-hander whom he had warming in the bullpen at the time.

When a four-pitch walk to Pena (107 pitches) to load the bases followed, there was a visit to the mound by pitching coach Bob McClure, but again, no change as Evan Longoria stepped to the plate.

“[McClure] went out, said just make sure you see the right look in his eye,” said Valentine. “He came back and he said he’€™s very determined. He wants it. Everyone wants it.”

Of course, to ask a pitcher whether he wants the ball, whether he wants the opportunity to retire a pitcher, is a nearly futile gesture. Pitchers almost never shy from the challenge when it is presented (as Pedro Martinez has noted in discussing his conversation with Grady Little back in the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees), and Bard is no different.

“I wanted [Longoria],” Bard said after the game. “In hindsight, probably, the signs pointed that I was getting tired. In the moment, I wanted to be out there.’€

Bard missed the strike zone with a first-pitch changeup, then missed with three straight fastballs. Longoria’s bases-loaded walk forced in the only run of the game. Bard left the mound to a standing ovation, replaced by Thomas. When Valentine walked back from the mound to the dugout, he was roundly booed by the patrons of Fenway Park.

“They felt what I thought. I should have taken him out earlier,” said Valentine. “They’€™re good fans. They know what’€™s going on.”

Naturally, in the aftermath of a loss, there were laments — chiefly by Bard about his command and Valentine about his decision to stick with his starter for a batter or three too long. Still, in defeat, there was immense promise for the Sox.

A year ago, the Sox had just 23 outings in which a starter recorded an out in the seventh inning (or later) while allowing one or no runs, a mark that ranked 24th in the majors and 12th out of 14 teams in the American League. Of those 23, 14 were from the tandem of Josh Beckett (8) and Jon Lester (6).

That Bard is capable of pitching into the seventh while effectively shutting down an opposing lineup is an important signal of his potential as a starter. Obviously, his seven walks on the day represent an issue, but the idea of being able to pitch deep into a game while keeping a division rival off the scoreboard reinforces the idea that Bard is laying a foundation for something with a chance to be quite valuable for the Red Sox both this year and beyond.

And so, as significant as the outcome of an individual game is, Valentine was able to rave that his pitcher’s “performance was great. Stellar.”

Bard also was able to take stock of a day in which was able to take another step forward in his career as a starter.

“I learned a lot. I know what it feels like. I know what my body is going to feel like. It felt pretty good,” said Bard. “I think it was more when you get up that high, that it’€™s a big jump from 90 to 100 or 105, just physically and mentally, too. It’€™s hard to maintain focus for that long, for that many pitches. That’€™s something I can learn from and improve on.’€

Read More: Bobby Valentine, Daniel Bard, tampa bay rays,
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