Following a start to their season that resembled Shakespearean tragedy - or perhaps comedy to their rivals - it's fitting that the Boston Red Sox will send a pitcher named Bard to the mound Tuesday.
For Daniel Bard, "to close or not to close" may be the question.
After 192 mostly impressive relief appearances over three seasons, the hard-throwing right-hander will make his first career start as the Red Sox continue their three-game series Tuesday night against the host Toronto Blue Jays.
Bard has thrived in a relief role for Boston (1-3) since his arrival in the big leagues in May 2009, compiling a 2.88 career ERA and .190 opponent batting average. His ERA hovered around two for much of 2011 while he served as Jonathan Papelbon's primary setup man, finishing 2-9 with a 3.33 ERA after a late-season swoon.
Bard figured to be the heir apparent to Boston's closer role after Papelbon departed for Philadelphia via free agency. However, faced with a shortage of starting pitching as veterans John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka recover from Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox opted to move Bard into their rotation for 2012. They acquired Andrew Bailey from Oakland to serve as closer, and Mark Melancon from Houston to add bullpen depth.
However, Bailey went down in spring training with a thumb injury that will sideline him for much of 2012. Melancon and newly-appointed closer Alfredo Aceves each had a brutal opening series, combining for two losses and two blown saves while allowing seven runs and nine hits - two homers - in one inning as Boston got swept at Detroit.
In the wake of that dreadful showing, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine wouldn't rule out returning Bard to a relief role.
"This is a work in progress,'' Valentine said after Aceves and Melancon both gave up homers and blew save chances in Sunday's 11-inning, 13-12 loss. "We're three days in after losing our closer, and we're still trying to figure it out.''
In Monday night's series opener, though, it was Toronto's bullpen that faltered. New Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos blew his second save in as many chances, allowing all three runs in a ninth-inning rally that broke the Red Sox into the win column with a 4-2 victory. Ryan Sweeney singled home Darnell McDonald with the go-ahead run, prompting Blue Jays fans to eventually boo Santos off the mound.
"I'd be booing too,'' Santos said. "It wasn't pretty.''
Aceves, meanwhile, fared much better than over the weekend, coming on in the bottom of the ninth to retire Toronto (2-2) in order and earn his first save.
Sweeney went 2 for 4 with a double, raising his average to .455 through his first four games with the Red Sox. Dustin Pedroia also had two hits - a double and his first home run of the season.
"We had a couple of tough ones in Detroit but we're going to bounce back and play as hard as we can every single night,'' Pedroia said.
The Blue Jays will oppose Bard with a promising young arm of their own in Kyle Drabek (4-5, 6.06 ERA in 2011). The son of 1990 NL Cy Young award winner Doug Drabek, the right-hander opened last season in the Toronto rotation and went 2-0 with a 3.30 ERA in his first five starts. His production fell off from there, though, and he wound up in Triple-A Las Vegas for nearly three months before returning to make four September relief appearances.
Drabek's last major league start was a 14-1 home loss to Boston on June 12, when he allowed eight runs in four innings.
The Red Sox are aiming for their first consecutive wins since sweeping a doubleheader from Oakland on Aug. 27 - 34 games ago.