BOSTON – During spring training and then at the start of the season, Daniel Bard would stand in front of his locker and field the same question, over and over.
Are you going back to the bullpen?
Bard had his ups and downs as a starter, but the Red Sox relievers were experiencing implosion after implosion. Boston began the year 4-10.
Boston, it was reasoned, had plenty of starters. It needed bullpen help.
“The talk of me going back there was more because of their struggles than how I was doing,” Bard said.
And when is the last time Bard has heard the question?
“It’s been about a month,” he said, sitting casually in front of his locker, which occupies prime real estate in the back corner of the clubhouse.
“I told everyone that there are too many good arms out there. They’re going to be fine,” Bard said. “And sure enough, I would argue that we have the best bullpen in the league right now.”
And thus we have a team clawing back into contention. As we turn the calendar to June, we can look back at the first two months of the season — seeing the lows, the highs and the hopes.
The good news is Boston is winning. The Red Sox have won 14 of their last 20 games. In their last seven series, they have won five, lost one and tied one (both the loss and tie came to Tampa Bay).
Give credit to an offense that is second in the American League in average and runs, and an improved bullpen, which features a 2.15 ERA this month.
Are the relievers the reason for the recent success?
“I think an awful lot,” Manager Bobby Valentine said, “but its been a team effort.”
Valentine then went into a litany of key hits by various players — Will Middlebrooks, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis
“It’s that offense that gives us a chance to allow the bullpen to save the day,” Valentine said. “Total team effort every night.”
Valentine left out part of that team, namely the starting pitching, which has accounted for a 5.06 ERA, ranking 27th out of 30 major league teams.
Among American League teams, Boston ranks 11th in innings pitched per game (5.8).
Let’s look at those starters.
Bard (4.56) is a No. 5 starter with promise. In his nine starts, he has allowed two earned runs or less in five of them, but four or more runs in four of them. He also has lasted more than six innings only three times.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to know myself as a pitcher with each outing,” Bard said. “That can only help. Just a couple of outings where I had to fight to find my delivery.”
The No. 4 starter, rookie Felix Doubront, is actually the best one statistically, with a 5-2 record and 3.86 ERA. He’s allowed three or fewer runs in eight of his 10 starts.
“I’m learning with each start and I’m getting good results,” Doubront said. “The main thing is the attitude and the concentration, like how to approach the hitter.
“I’m focusing on getting out in less than four pitches. That’s the main thing I’m focusing on now.”
Doubront has usually been good for six innings a start. Like Bard, he’d like to improve on that.
Jon Lester leads the staff with 672/3 innings. But Lester, who has had at least 15 wins and an ERA under 3.47 the last four years, is 3-4 with a 4.79 ERA.
That is the second-worst ERA on the staff, in front of the alarming 7.19 mark of Clay Buchholz. His last outing (seven innings, two earned runs) against Tampa Bay offers hope.
Josh Beckett has a 4.26 ERA. He seems to have been settling in after some early bumps.
Offensively, the Red Sox are rolling despite having Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Cody Ross on the disabled list, and Dustin Pedroia possibly heading there.
Defensively, Boston is sound, and making those extra plays that can win games — like left fielder Daniel Nava throwing out a runner at second base Wednesday, or right fielder Ryan Sweeney throwing out a runner at home Thursday.
The bullpen is humming. Lefties Rich Hill (1.69 ERA) and Andrew Miller (2.38) have been added. Current closer Alfredo Aceves (10.29 in April) has a 2.89 ERA in May, while new setup man Vicente Padilla went from 8.00 in April to 2.92 in May.
“Got a great group of guys,” Miller said. “We’re tying to make it last.”
The bullpen will last if it’s not overtaxed.
The starting pitchers will set the tone. Their grade as a whole, over the first two months, is a C-minus at best. And yet Boston is not far from first place.
Just think what a Grade-A performance from the starters, especially Lester and Buchholz, would mean for this team.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: