Daniel Bard and Terry Francona sat down to chat a couple of days ago about the role Bard has filled and will fill in the Red Sox bullpen. No longer a candidate to be sent back to Pawtucket -- he likely would have been a casualty had Daisuke Matsuzaka remained healthy -- Bard has looked more and more impressive the more opportunities he's had.
The rookie looked particularly impressive on Thursday in the aftermath of the disastrous sixth inning turned in by Manny Delcarmen and Justin Masterson. By the time Bard got a chance to pitch, it was 8-5 and the Royals were threatening again. A runner was on third with two outs thanks to an RBI triple surrendered by Ramon Ramirez.
Bard needed just three pitches -- a fastball, a fastball and a nasty slider -- to fan Billy Butler and get out of the eighth inning. He then fanned Jose Guillen and Mark Teahen to open the top of the ninth before getting Mike Jacobs to hit a weak fly ball to second base to retire the side.
"I thought Bard was tremendous," Francona said.
Bard, in large part due to his inexperience, remains one of the last options in the bullpen. He was up and throwing when starter Brad Penny ran into trouble in the fourth inning -- when the Red Sox still led by a 4-0 score -- but sat down and had to watch as Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson and Ramon Ramirez all were summoned into the game before he was.
If Hideki Okajima hadn't pitched in back-to-back games on Tuesday and Wednesday, he'd have been in there, too.
Bard knows where he stands. Francona laid it out for him.
"He said, 'You don't have a role,'" Bard said. "He goes, 'That's the one thing you give us: A lot of flexibility. If it's you and Oki both available and we need someone to throw the eighth inning, it's going to be Oki because he's experienced right now.' I'm totally behind that 100 percent. That's what's best for the team.
"Whatever my role is that night, I'm going to try to be the best at it that I can. Times will come where I need to throw those higher-leverage innings, and I'll try to be as prepared as I can when it happens."
As patient as Francona always will be with his pitchers -- he teased one veteran writer before Thursday's game about how quickly he was to try to run Okajima out of town last season -- he's not unwilling to give some innings to his youngsters, either.
It was less than a year ago, after all, that Masterson was doing exactly what Bard is doing now. The Red Sox had recalled the sinkerballer from Triple-A in late July and gave him a chance to get his feet wet in low-leverage spots. Each of his first 11 appearances came when the Red Sox either were losing or were winning by four or more runs. He'd been in the major leagues for almost a month before he had a chance to preserve a two-run lead in the late innings.
But by the time the playoffs rolled around, he might have been Francona's favorite righthanded reliever. He made more appearances (four) than any other reliever in the ALDS and made more appearances (five) than any other reliever except Okajima in the ALCS. He earned those appearances, too: He had a 2.13 ERA in September and a 1.86 ERA in his nine appearances in the postseason.
No one ever gave him an indication he was being promoted in any way. He just started getting the call in more and more big spots -- and he just kept on getting key outs.
"It just happened," he said with a grin. "You find yourself, all of a sudden, with a few good outings -- and there you are in situations. If you show the ability to be calm and show competence in those situations, you'll be OK."
Bard, of course, has visions of earning the same type of trust that his longtime buddy -- the two pitched on Cape Cod together four years ago -- earned a year ago.
He scuffled in Washington on June 25 but hasn't allowed a base-runner in the 5 1/3 innings he's pitched since, striking out 10 hitters in the process. He looked almost untouchable in two perfect innings against Baltimore on July 1 and looked equally dominant against the Royals on Thursday night.
At this point, that's all he can do.
"You just continue to do your stuff -- execute and perform," Masterson said. "You can't really worry about what's going on. Every time you go, try and pitch well. That's what he's been doing -- and, over time, you gain faith and get in those situations. We have a strong bullpen, so as we go on, everyone's going to get time and everyone's going to be needed."
Said Bard, "If you come in and throw strikes, that's the biggest thing. If you throw strikes and keep the ball down, you'll become a guy they can rely on. That's the position I'm trying to work my way into right now."