DUNEDIN, Fla. — Daniel Bard began the sixth inning under the bright Florida skies by hitting Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista with a pitch.

Then he walked a batter.

A single followed.

Was Bard wilting in the heat (literally and figuratively)? Was this experiment of turning Bard from a reliever to starter destined to fail?

Bard finished the inning and his outing: Strikeout. Groundout. Strikeout.

More importantly, Bard was not just rearing back and firing 100 mph fastballs — though Portland Sea Dogs fans still marvel when he lit up the radar gun at Hadlock Field in 2008.

But guys who only throw gas do not become starting pitchers. That is why Bard was thrilled Sunday, after a day of mixing up his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, along with his slider and his improved change-up.

“Today was the first game that I can actually say I felt like a starting pitcher out there,” Bard said.

And now for the more important opinion:

“And he looked like one,” Boston Manager Bobby Valentine said.

After previous Bard outings, Valentine was hesitant in his praise, and speculation grew that Bard was destined to return to the bullpen, instead of grabbing one of the two starting spots, behind Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz.

Former Sea Dogs lefty Felix Doubront, who pitched a six-inning gem on Saturday, may have secured a rotation job. And Alfredo Aceves has been effective, although he was crushed Saturday (three innings, nine runs).

Bard’s numbers were not great Sunday — six innings, six hits, five runs, three walks, five strikeouts. But even Valentine shrugged off any concern.

“Overall, I liked everything,” Valentine said. “Had some tough breaks. Worked his way out of jams. Threw all of his pitches today. His change-up, at times, was devastating. Slider was sharp at times.”

And everyone already knows about his fastball.

After his outing, Bard was surrounded in the visiting clubhouse by New England and national media. How the Red Sox fill out their rotation is big news.

Bard, 27, spoke with a spark in his eyes.

“Today was the first day I really felt like I went out and pitched and used everything I had,” said Bard, who has pitched 18 2/3 innings this spring with a 7.23 ERA. “I used all four pitches — a steady mix of all four. Really did it and felt confident about it.”

Does he believe he will start?

“Until I hear otherwise, I’m preparing to be a starter,” he said.

Bard has not started since his first pro season in 2007 when he was a combined 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA in Class A.

Former Sea Dogs pitching coach Mike Cather worked on Bard’s mechanics that offseason. The Sox moved him to the bullpen. He jumped from Class A to Portland early in 2008 and struck out 64 in 49 2/3 innings (26 walks).

Bard was in the majors in 2009.

As far as Bard being a starter in 2012, Valentine would not give a timeline for a decision.

“Looks like it’s all coming together,” he said. “No matter who’s pitching, I like our pitching … it’s not like we’re going to be searching for (starters).”

This is the first major league spring training where Bard did not know his role.

“For a little while, you wonder and you wonder,” Bard said. “But I’ve gotten to a point — it’s out of my hands. I’m going to put the work in and do the best I can out there, every fifth day. If that shifts to a bullpen role, you’ll get the same thing.”

How disappointing would it be to return to relieving?

“You’ll have to ask me if it happens,” Bard said. “Right now, I’m focusing on the positive, and trying to think about this outing; what I did well and what I could do better.”

Any better, and Bard is a starter next month.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases