By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - It did not match the hype surrounding Yu Darvish's debut but the Boston Red Sox and their fans have been eagerly awaiting Daniel Bard's first appearance as a Major League starter, hoping the former reliever will be one of the keys to a successful season.
After spending his entire career in the Boston bullpen as a dominant but mostly anonymous middle reliever, Bard took centre stage on Tuesday, and while he failed to shine in a 7-3 loss to Toronto he was not too disheartened by his performance.
Bard's first appearance had been the most talked about start in 'Bean Town' since the arrival of Daisuke Matsuzaka from Japan and took on more significance as the Red Sox stumbled out of the gate winning just once in five games.
"Considering he's the guy who's been talked about the most the first three games and he hasn't thrown a pitch yet, I'm dying for him to throw a pitch," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine told reporters prior to Bard's start.
Bard's first pitch was probably not what Valentine expected as Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar lined a single into left that Edwin Encarnacion later turned into a 1-0 lead Toronto would never surrender.
The 26-year-old right-hander's debut would not be classified as a glowing success but Bard still showed plenty of potential during five-plus innings of gritty work that yielded five runs on eight hits.
"It's easy to look at results but if you can look past that ... I feel good about how I threw it," said Bard. "The result obviously stunk, I recognize that and I'm frustrated with it but I wouldn't change the way I threw.
"I threw the ball better tonight than did all Spring, by far. My command was better, everything, they just hit where we weren't.
"I'm just trying to focus on how I felt and how the ball was coming out of my hand. I try to ignore the bad results."
The Red Sox remain confident Bard can settle into his role as a starter even though such transformations are rare.
As a set-up man, Bard's role was to fix the mess left by a faltering starter or hold the fort and get the game into the ninth inning before handing the baton to the closer.
"I know how every starter feels, you want to get out of your own jams," said Bard. "Me especially, that's where I thrive because I've done it so much, getting the other guys out of theirs."
In three seasons in Boston, Bard made 192 relief appearances and was one of the best in the business, finishing last season tied for the American League lead with 34 holds while setting a Red Sox record of 25 consecutive outings without allowing a run.
His 192 relief appearances are the most by any Boston pitcher to begin a Major League career prior to earning a start.
Despite a promising debut, questions hang over Bard's short-term future as a starter with the Red Sox bullpen, which he once anchored, in disarray.
Valentine has refused to tip his hand but Bard could go from starter to closer, a role he was expected to assume this season after Jonathan Papelbon jumped to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Bard pitched as well as most of our starters," said Valentine. "He pitched good enough to win if we scored some runs.
"He maintained his stuff; his pitches were good, very good."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; editing by Amlan Chakraborty/Peter Rutherford)