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Bard has become a trustworthy option

Bard has become a trustworthy option

BOSTON -- Back in mid-May, Daniel Bard was just a young reliever trying to find his place in a loaded Red Sox bullpen.

Given all the quality setup men in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon, the rookie from Houston seemed to stand little chance of pitching meaningful innings for Boston this season. Considering his competition -- a pair of former All-Stars in Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito to name a few -- Bard had every reason to feel overwhelmed.

But now, four months into his first big league campaign, the only ones feeling overwhelmed are the hitters standing in the batter's box against the flame-throwing right-hander.

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There haven't been many meaningless outings lately for Bard, who has established himself as a trustworthy eighth-inning option for manager Terry Francona.

"Daniel's starting to understand the league and understand situations," said Francona, whose Red Sox will close out their three-game series against the Rays on Sunday with a day-night doubleheader at Fenway Park. "Now we're able to put him in situations with the game on the line, and he's not just relying on his stuff, but knowing he can hold a runner and field his position and things like that."

Despite not making his Red Sox debut until May 13, Bard is tied for second for the team lead in holds, with 10. And though he could play a key role for Boston come October, the Sox will continue to monitor the 24-year-old as he wades into uncharted territory.

"I don't exactly think it looks like he's on fumes," Francona said, "but we've been very cognizant of [his workload], and will continue to be. We won't stop pitching him, nor do we want to, but we do need to be aware that he's never pitched this long [into a season] in his career. If there's a red flag, we would be aware of it and stay away."

Selected out of the University of North Carolina with the 28th overall pick of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, Bard began his professional career as a starter before switching to a permanent relief role late in 2007. The move proved to be the right one, as he enters Sunday's action sporting a 3.32 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings of Major League work.

He has left quite an impression on his superiors.

"He's got tremendous God-given ability and a very good work ethic," pitching coach John Farrell said. "He doesn't take things for granted. He's always been prepared to put himself in situations where he can execute, as he's done the vast majority of the time he's been here."

"He's done what we had hoped, but probably a little bit better than what we expected," Francona said. "That's a lot of responsibility he's taken on, and he's done a very good job."

Pitching matchups
Game 1
BOS: RHP Clay Buchholz (5-3, 3.92 ERA)
Buchholz won his fourth consecutive decision last Tuesday, shutting out the Orioles over seven innings of three-hit ball at Fenway Park. The 25-year-old is 4-2 with a 3.00 ERA in seven outings since Aug. 8, posting six quality starts over that span. He has surrendered three runs or fewer in nine of 11 appearances this season. In three career starts against the Rays, he is 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA.

TB: RHP Matt Garza (7-9, 3.85 ERA)
Garza limited the Yankees to one run on five hits over seven innings last Monday at Yankee Stadium, but the hard-luck right-hander came away with a no-decision. The 25-year-old has the best stuff on the Rays' staff and seems to be making strides toward improved consistency, the lone attribute keeping him from becoming an elite pitcher.

Game 2
BOS: LHP Jon Lester (12-7, 3.44 ERA)
Lester has been utterly dominant for more than three months now. In 18 starts since May 31, the power lefty is 9-2 with a 2.25 ERA, allowing one earned run or fewer 10 times over that span. In last Sunday's victory against Chicago, he became the 10th pitcher in franchise history to notch 200 strikeouts in a season, punching out eight White Sox over seven scoreless innings. The 25-year-old, who sports a 21-5 career record at Fenway Park, is 5-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 11 lifetime appearances against the Rays.

TB: RHP James Shields (9-10, 4.02 ERA)
Shields was spotted an early cushion for the second straight start last Saturday, but the Rays' bullpen couldn't hold the lead in an eventual 8-6 loss to the Tigers. The 27-year-old was charged with six runs on eight hits over 6 1/3 innings. He is 4-1 with a 4.76 ERA in seven road outings since June 20.

Tidbits
Catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez is riding a 13-game hitting streak, during which he's batting .356 (16-for-45). ... Corner infielder Kevin Youkilis is hitting a Major League-best .500 (24-for-48) against the Rays this season with a minimum of 10 at-bats, including nine multihit games. ... Shortstop Alex Gonzalez has hit safely in 13 of his past 14 contests, batting 17-for-51 (.333) over that period.

Tickets
 Buy tickets now to catch the games in person.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• NESN

On radio
• WEEI 850, SBN 1150 (Español)

Up next
• Monday: Off-day
• Tuesday: Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzaka, 1-5, 8.23) vs. Angels (John Lackey, 10-7, 3.53), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Red Sox (TBD) vs. Angels (Joe Saunders, 13-7, 4.81), 7:10 p.m. ET

John Barone is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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