- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There's nothing sexy about pitching in the eighth inning of a major league baseball game.
Sure, the setup role is an important one and Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard has been automatic for much of his big league career as that eighth-inning guy. The right-hander has electric stuff. His mound presence appears tame, but his pitches can devastate an opposing hitter.
For the past three seasons he's successfully served in that role, setting up closer Jonathan Papelbon. They were a dangerous 1-2 punch. What Bard accomplished helped the Red Sox tremendously, but it was no secret he wanted something else.
When the 2011 season ended, Bard spoke with his agent about a possible role change in his career. In turn, the agent spoke with Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington about it. At the time, the future status of Papelbon was still unknown.
Eventually Bard and Cherington exchanged thoughts and ideas about the pitcher's career, but it wasn't until the Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine as the club's new manager that Bard's new role was set in stone.
Valentine and Bard spoke on the phone, and during that conversation the manager simply asked the 26-year-old what he wanted to do.
"I told him, 'I want to start or close and I think I can do either one well. It's whatever you guys think will help the team.' It turns out they think starting is the way to go."
Then Papelbon landed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies worth $50 million in November. Bard thought that would be the end of his starting career because the Red Sox would need him to close.
"When Pap left, I kind of figured they would forget [the decision] ever happened and move on because they wouldn't want to lose both of us from the bullpen," explained Bard.
But shortly after Papelbon's exit, Cherington called Bard and explained that the plan hadn't changed, and the GM proved that when he acquired reliever Mark Melancon and closer Andrew Bailey in two separate trades.
Project Bard was a go.
"I'm really excited about it," Bard said. "It's a great opportunity for me. It's something I asked for and Ben was very receptive.
Seeking smooth transition
It's still too early in camp to get a true feel for Bard's transition, but both sides are pleased with the progression. He's already thrown a few bullpens and has reached 55 pitches.
"He's going through his reps right now and getting back into his windup. It looked like [Monday] during his side that it's starting to get pretty comfortable for him," Cherington said. "We've had a chance to talk to Daniel a lot about this during the offseason and since we've been in Fort Myers. He's attacking this like he would anything: a day at a time with a good focus and knowing he's going to accomplish something today -- and tomorrow wake up and accomplish something new. Pretty soon he'll be in games and his routine and we'll see how it goes. I know he's very confident and believes strongly that he's in the right place."
The Red Sox aren't the only ones who believe Bard can excel in his new role.
Not too long after Papelbon inked his free-agent deal, he called Bard in December and invited him to go duck hunting (imagine Papelbon with a rifle in his hand). Bard couldn't go, so the two just talked on the phone.
"It was the first time we had talked [since the end of the season] and I just congratulated him on his deal and told him we were going to miss him," said Bard. "Our wives are good friends, and we're going to miss his family."
Papelbon asked Bard if the rumors were true that the hard-throwing right-hander would be converted into a starter.
"He goes, 'I think that's going to be a really good move for you.' He said it didn't work for him, his mentality was so geared toward pitching every day and being ready to go every day. That's just the way his brain works. He's got to be doing something all the time. I have a little bit of that in me. I loved the reliever lifestyle, being ready to go every day."
During his first spring training interview with the Phillies last week in Clearwater, Papelbon praised his former teammate and close friend.
"I'm excited to see what he can do," Papelbon told reporters. "Daniel has a phenomenal career ahead of him. In my opinion, there's no reason why he can't start.
"Daniel can do whatever he wants to do. He's that good. He's matured into a phenomenal pitcher. The sky's the limit. He can do anything he sets his mind to," Papelbon added.
Papelbon was in a similar situation earlier in his career with the Red Sox, when the organization wanted to convert him into a full-time starter after his first season as the Sox closer. Then in spring training of 2007, Papelbon walked into then-manager Terry Francona's office and told him he wanted to close. Boston needed a closer and management agreed.
The rest is history.
Now it's Bard's turn to rewrite his career.
'A lot of unknowns'
Not only did he speak with Papelbon about the challenges of converting, Bard also spoke with former Red Sox teammate Justin Masterson, who served as a starter and a reliever in Boston but has been a mainstay in the Cleveland Indians starting rotation since 2009.
New Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure also served as both a starter and a reliever during his 19-year career in the big leagues, so he spent some time talking to Bard about the transition.
His offseason routine did not change much once he knew of his new role. He began throwing a week earlier than normal and threw more pitches during those sessions.
Now that camp has officially begun, he plans on working with the catchers more, along with the advance scouts. He will place more emphasis on his repertoire of pitches, including his changeup and sinker, because he already possesses a 100 mph fastball and a nasty slider in his arsenal.
"There are a lot of unknowns," Bard said. "I haven't thrown this many innings in my whole life. But I think 75 innings out of the bullpen, to me and to guys who I've talked to who have made this transition before, is just as much wear and tear on your arm, on your body, as 200 in the rotation. I don't want an innings limit. If I'm hanging in August, I'll say something to them, but I don't see that happening. My delivery is pretty fluid to where the wear and tear on my arm is not going to be different as in past years."
When the Red Sox selected him in the first round (28th overall) in the 2006 First Year Player draft, Bard was a starter. During his rookie year in pro ball he combined for a 3-7 record in 22 starts between Single-A Lancaster and Single-A Greenville.
"If you can find a video of me throwing in '07, my mechanics were so messed up. It's not a surprise I couldn't throw strikes on a somewhat regular basis," he said.
He was converted into a reliever in 2008 and pitched well at Greenville before being promoted to Double-A Portland.
"The next year I made the move to the bullpen and I made a lot of tweaks to my mechanics to get back to where I was comfortable, and that's the reason the results got better," Bard said. "It had nothing to do with a role change. It just happened to be the role I was in when everything clicked for me."
He began the 2009 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, but his stint with the PawSox didn't last long. In 11 games at Pawtucket, Bard was 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA with six saves. He worked a total of only 16 innings and posted 29 strikeouts with only five walks.
That success helped him get to the big leagues faster. He was promoted to Boston on May 10, 2009, and has never left.
"I got hot as a reliever and I was in the big leagues a year later," he said. "I've learned how to pitch at this level, so I'm not going to face any situations [as a starter] that I haven't faced before."
It was an interesting 2011 season for Bard. It was filled with many high points, but he struggled in September. He was basically unhittable from May 27 until July 31 when he posted 25 consecutive outings without allowing a run.
He tied for the AL lead with 34 holds and was the only AL reliever to post back-to-back seasons with 30 or more. Like the rest of the team, Bard struggled in September and suffered three consecutive losses between Sept. 7 and Sept. 14, when he allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 2 1/3 innings of work.
He enters 2012 with a new role and a positive attitude.
"It's about believing in it yourself," Bard said. "I spoke with Ben yesterday and he said, 'Hey, I want to let you know that we wouldn't do this unless we really thought it was going to work.' I said, 'Well, I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it was going to work.' I'm all in. I'm committed to it and they are, too."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
Daniel Bard works on smooth transition from setup man to starter.