Fireballer Bard a fast learner

BALTIMORE -- It's been a little more than a year since Daniel Bard made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox.

He showed the baseball world what to expect from his lightning bolt right arm when he worked two scoreless innings against the Angels in Anaheim on May 13, 2009. Since that day he's only improved in every aspect of the game and can handle any situation when Red Sox manager Terry Francona summons him from the bullpen and hands him the ball.

Bard did it again Saturday night against the Baltimore Orioles in an 8-2 Boston victory at Camden Yards.

Starter Jon Lester kept the Baltimore bats at bay through 6 1/3 innings, but he began to tire in the seventh and walked the bases loaded. Boston held a 1-0 lead at that point thanks to a Kevin Youkilis solo homer in the top of the inning, and Francona signaled for Bard to stifle the Orioles' momentum.

That's just what he did.

Bard retired the next two batters to end the threat and secure the Sox's lead.

"Those are extremely huge outs in that situation," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "He kept the game at bay and it led to us having a big ninth inning."

Bard displayed his usual 99 mph fastballs and complemented them with his nasty high-80s to low-90s changeup.

"It's speed differential. If his fastball is 92, [his changeup] probably stinks," said Varitek. "But his fastball is 99, so the speed differential is there, which you need. That's the big part with variance in velocity."

It's also a pretty gutsy pitch to throw with the bases loaded.

"Maybe a year ago he might not be able to make that pitch, or we didn't know enough and the experience wasn't there between pitcher-catcher or just pitcher," said Varitek. "He elevated the ball real well when we needed to. He's becoming more complete, but he'll continue to get better. And he's pretty good where he's at."

With Bard holding the fort, the Sox scored one run in the eighth and six more in the ninth. Even though Lester improved to 7-2 overall and is 6-0 in his last seven outings, it was Bard's brilliance in a pressure situation that deflated the Orioles.

"I think it kind of drains the hope out of them," Bard said. "They definitely had something going there. They weren't really hitting the ball, but they managed to work some walks against a guy who had been dealing all night. It's nice to be able to take the wind out of their sails."

Forget just taking the wind out of their sails, Bard's been dismantling the entire ship since he first toed a big-league rubber. Teammates and opponents alike realize how well this 24-year-old can throw the ball.

Bard is confident and overpowering. And he's only getting better.

Last summer the Red Sox eased Bard into certain situations and dealt with his development at this level perfectly. Now the reins are off and Francona has no problem giving Bard the ball in any spot.

"His stuff is good," said Francona. "He's confident. He should be. He's gone through the league. Now he knows what he's doing. He knows his role. It's a huge advantage for us. We've got a guy who can come in, like he did, then go back out."

Bard retired the side in order in the eighth.

At some point, maybe if Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon becomes a free agent after next season, Bard will no longer be the setup guy. He'll be the guy who gets the ball in the ninth inning in a save situation.

The situation he inherited Saturday night was that type of pressure even though it wasn't for a save.

"I like it," Bard said. "I think some guys kind of thrive in that situation. To me it's a win-win situation. Come in and bail him out like that, or give up a knock. You hate to say it, not necessarily expecting to come out of it with no runs, so it's kind of a bonus when you do. I don't mind throwing in that situation."

Francona doesn't mind handing Bard the ball in those situations either.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.