BOSTON – Daniel Bard’s gifted arm and effortless windup has him firing 100 mph fastballs. Add in a hard curveball and an occasional change-up, and Bard is Boston’s best bullpen option until the ninth inning (and maybe for the ninth, but that is a subject for another day).

But don’t overdo it with Bard.

If you want to gauge how the Boston Red Sox are doing, watch how Bard is used.

Rely on him to bail out a bad outing by Boston’s starters and he is OK.

Place him in the eighth inning as a bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon, and both Bard and Boston will shine.

“If I could keep (an outing) to 10-12 pitches, I’m good to go just about every day,” Bard said the other day from the Red Sox clubhouse. “Obviously that’s not going to happen. But if I can feel good, I’m happy.”

A happy Bard is an effective Bard.

Bard had a 3.07 ERA in April. His worst outing came on April 23 (two earn runs), which was two days after he was used for two innings (and 29 pitches).

In May, Bard has been used for mostly one inning at a time. His ERA is 0.87.

Boston’s bullpen has weak points, but it also has stars.

It is up to the starting pitchers to allow those stars to be used correctly.

But the Red Sox can do little about its starting rotation — except to hope Josh Beckett is better and John Lackey keeps finding his form.

So Boston may be doing little to improve this team — save for a tweak with an extra arm for the bullpen.

I know the adage about general managers spending two months assessing their teams, two months fixing them, and two months watching the results.

June is nearly here.

After 50 games — following the starting debacles of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield Thursday and Friday — the Red Sox hold a 27-23 record. At this rate, they won’t reach 90 wins, let alone a playoff berth.

The assessment is easy to make: Yuk.

For a solution: Health and improved starting pitching.

Before Thursday, the Red Sox had won 8 of 9. Starting pitching shined, which meant a more efficient bullpen, and little need for offensive explosions.

Jon Lester, scheduled to pitch today, looks like the ace.

Clay Buchholz, who was scheduled to pitch Saturday night, appears ready for a breakout season.

Lackey shows signs of coming around and his history of being a bulldog gives him the benefit of the doubt.

The wild card here is Beckett. If he can fix what ails him, the Red Sox can make a charge toward the top, sooner than later.

Meanwhile, Matsuzaka and Wakefield can take turns being inconsistent as the No. 5 starter.

Remember the World Series title years of 2004 and 2007? The former was led by Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo And Derek Lowe; the latter by Beckett, Schilling, Matsuzaka, Wakefield and Lester.

Those staffs held Boston together, and their performances improved the relievers.

The 2004 bullpen featured closer Keith Foulke, setup men Mike Timlin and Alan Embree and middleman Curt Leskanic. Except for Foulke, it was not a lights-out group. But when used properly, they were effective.

The ’07 bullpen had Papelbon as closer, with setup men Hideki Okajima and Timlin and middleman Manny Delcarmen (do I have to mention Eric Gagne?).

For 2010, Papelbon, Okajima and Delcarmen are still in the mix. Okajima seems to need more rest than in previous years (thus the need for another arm, assuming Ramon Ramirez does not suddenly turn into a dependable option).

Bard is a key. He likes that eighth-inning bridge role. But it is up to the starters to set the tone for the relievers.

“It allows us to get into more defined roles, which I think is healthy for a bullpen,” Bard said. “Guys kind of have an idea when the manager likes to use them and it gets a little more consistent.

“Rather than the starter going four innings, then five and you find yourself in a variety of roles.”

Offensively, Boston is fine. The Red Sox, with a resurgent David Ortiz, are tied for first in the American League in runs scored (260).

There is concern in the outfield with Mike Cameron unable to play everyday because of an abdominal injury, and Jacoby Ellsbury on the disabled list again because of his ribs.

Assuming Ellsbury comes back fairly soon, Boston’s bats will hold on.

Pitching is the need. Boston’s 4.59 ERA, which ranks 11th in the league, has meant a slow start to the season.

Both the 2004 and ’07 teams started strong and slumped in June.

Maybe this 2010 team can make up ground in June — with strong starts and the right relievers in the key innings.

 

Staff writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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