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Second time around

Posted by Maureen Mullen February 26, 2009 05:56 AM

Josh Bard knows. He remembers his brief time in a Red Sox uniform three years ago as well as anyone. Allowing 10 passed balls and 12 stolen bases in seven games is hard to forget.

Although he appeared in seven games in 2006, he was behind the plate for just six — his final appearance in a Sox uniform came April 27, a one-at-bat, pinch-hit turn. During the other six, Bard caught Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball in five starts. In four of those five games, the fluttering pitch inflicted its damage on Bard.

“Yeah,” Bard replied emphatically, when asked if those games got him down. “It was really frustrating.”

At the time, he felt that his baseball future rode on every pitch.

But “other than bleeding out of my ears,” it wasn’t too bad.

Bard was ultimately sent out of town, traded to the Padres on May 1, while catcher Doug Mirabelli played the part of the returning hero, complete with a memorable cross-country flight on a private jet and a police escort from Logan Airport in time to catch Wakefield against the Yankees that night.

But Bard is back, in line for the Sox backup catcher’s job and the opportunity to catch Wakefield’s knuckleball once again.

It’s different this time.

“I just think maturity,” said Bard, 30, of the biggest difference since he was traded. “I don’t feel like every pitch, my life depends on it. That’s no way to play. You can’t play based on [feeling that] you’re either good or bad based on one pitch. I think you just focus and let the mechanics do their work.

“It’s like shooting a free throw: Once you get the mechanics, you just do it over and over again, and at the end of the year you look up and those are your numbers. And I think that getting to go to San Diego, getting an opportunity to play, and having some success was big for me.”

Sox manager Terry Francona sees the difference, too.

“I think he feels better equipped to handle whatever’s thrown at him,” Francona said. “Whether it’s some adversity or having to walk back to the screen and having to pick up the ball, which inevitably happens when Wake’s pitching regardless of who [is catching], and not get to the point where the next pitch is hard to catch, or whether it’s catching somebody else. I think the experiences he’s gone through have made him tougher. I think he feels more able to handle those things.”

In 228 games with the Padres, Bard allowed just four passed balls. He was an offensive force in 93 games in San Diego in 2006 (.338 average, .406 on-base percentage, .537 slugging), but played just 49 games with a.202 average last season after wrist surgery. He signed a one-year, non-guaranteed $1.7 million contract with the Sox on Jan. 2, before Jason Varitek re-signed with the team.

“I think that was a big vote of confidence when they approached me to come back,” said Bard. “And I made no secret about the fact that I wanted to be back here. I think they do it the right way. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Tito [Francona] and the way that he goes about his business. I’ll never forget the way that he stood by me when I went through the stuff that I went through. Ultimately, they had to make a decision to do what was best for the Red Sox and I don’t hold any grudge against that. That’s business.”

Bard, who says he’s more confident and relaxed handling the knuckleball, has been working with bullpen coach Gary Tuck.

“We’ve been working really on all phases with Josh,” Tuck said. “But we’re trying to get him quieter behind [the plate], less movement, more relaxed with his body, less movement with his hands, staying upright and letting the ball get to him, rather than going after the ball, and not trying to catch it for a strike, just catch it.

“He’s made unbelievable strides in eight, 10 days. Now it’s a matter of taking it out to a game. That’s why it’s spring training.”

Wakefield, who is now working with his third catcher in as many seasons, after Mirabelli and Kevin Cash, said he’s also noticed the difference in Bard.

“He’s catching it the way he wants to catch it,” he said, “not catching it the way Doug or somebody else that’s caught me in the past.”

Maureen Mullen covers the Red Sox for OT and can be reached at mmullen@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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