Bard learns tough lesson

CLEVELAND -- Jon Lester is on the mound with a 5-0 lead in the second inning against a team whose third baseman had made three errors in the same inning. No problem, right?

Daniel Bard had every reason to think he might have Thursday night off. This was the 104th start of Lester's career, and the left-hander had never lost a game in which he had a five-run lead.

Then the Red Sox were down by a run, down to their last strike with no one on base in the ninth. The situation may have changed, but Bard still had every reason to think he would have the rest of the night off.

But J.D. Drew was nicked by a pitch on the shoe, and Adrian Beltre drove a ball deep into the night. Suddenly Bard was in demand, called upon to close a game the Sox had led, trailed and led again.

With Jonathan Papelbon back home in Boston on bereavement/family emergency leave, Bard was eager to do the job, perhaps too eager. The Red Sox told him they would buy him more time to warm up in the bullpen by sending Ramon Ramirez out to the mound in the bottom of the ninth just to stall. Bard said no need.

"I was loose," he said. "It's just the mind was racing a little bit, which happens from time to time. It took me a couple of batters to slow it down, I think."

Bard walked the leadoff man, Trevor Crowe, on four pitches. He threw a ball to Shin-Soo Choo, then watched Choo smash one past a diving Beltre. Left fielder Bill Hall threw to the wrong base as Choo coasted into second as the potential winning run.

He threw five straight fastballs, clocked at 99 mph, to Austin Kearns. The Indians' hitter foul-tipped one. The other four were wide of the mark. Bases loaded, no outs.

Bard had been in a similar spot the last time Lester pitched -- coming into the game after Lester walked the bases loaded -- and got out of it.

"There was not really a point in that inning where I thought I wasn't going to get out of it," Bard said. "I think you've got to have that mentality going in to have a chance to get out of a bases-loaded, no-out game, regardless of how you got there.

"I just kept thinking, not 'am I going to do this?' It was, 'How I'm going to do it.'"

The closer's job one day will be Bard's, that seems certain. Papelbon will be in line for an eight-figure salary next year and will be just one season away from free agency.

No one questions that Bard has the stuff -- a 98-100 mph fastball, a devastating slider, the makings of a quality changeup -- to be an elite closer.

But Thursday night, against a last-place team in a half-empty stadium in the middle of June, Bard was facing one of those tests that will only become tougher as the stakes are raised, the opposition more hardened, the nights cooler, the stage bigger.

The batter was Travis Hafner, who had hit a grand slam the night before. Bard, who up to that point had thrown only fastballs, 11 in a row, dropped a slider in for strike one. Hafner fouled a fastball back for strike two, then looked at another 100 mph fastball for strike three.

One out.

He worked Jhonny Peralta the same way -- slider, fastball -- and had two quick strikes. Peralta took the next pitch, then lunged for a slider and popped it foul behind the plate, where it was caught by Victor Martinez.

Two out.

His teammates hung from the dugout railing as Martinez, after putting away Peralta's popup, spoke intently to Bard, giving him words of encouragement.

Russell Branyan was the hitter, a 34-year-old all-or-nothing slugger who had been all but written off until he hit 31 home runs for Seattle last season, then went begging for a job before the Indians signed him to a modest free-agent contract. Branyan had been drafted 16 years earlier by the Tribe; this was his third go-round with the club.

Bard threw Branyan nothing but fastballs. The count was 2-and-1 when the fourth pitch, a 99 mph fastball, bore in on Branyan, just under his hands. A good pitch.

Somehow, Branyan pulled his hands inside and lifted a soft line drive into a Red Sox shift. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia lunged for it, but the ball was over his head. Drew, the right fielder, was too far away.

"I knew they had a shift on him," Bard said. "Maybe we had a guy deep enough. It was right in that no-man's-land. I was praying for it, but definitely no-man's-land."

The ballpark filled with the sounds of "Cleveland Rocks," and the Indians had an unexpected 8-7 win.

The Sox had absorbed one of their worst losses of the season, on par with the 11-9 loss to the Yankees in which they'd been the ones to fight back from five runs down to take the lead, only to lose.

But had Bard failed the test? By the ultimate standard, yes. By any other measure? Hardly.

Did he learn a lesson? Yes. Next time, you can be certain, he won't be rushed.

He turns 25 in two weeks. There will be plenty of opportunities.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.