By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
BOSTON -- On Wednesday, for the third time in the last week, Daniel Bard lost a game in the late innings for the Red Sox. The 5-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, like the two games before it, was clearly a costly one for the Sox.
Had Bard locked down the 4-2 lead with which he was entrusted in the eighth, the Sox would sport a five-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays, rather the four-game edge they currently maintain.
For that matter, had Bard performed against the Toronto Blue Jays last Wednesday, Tim Wakefield would have earned his 200th career victory six days earlier. And had he not surrendered the 10th-inning base hit to Evan Longoria three days later -- the game was tied at the time after the Red Sox pulled even with two ninth-inning homers -- the Sox perhaps would not have been swept at Tropicana Field.
Either way, they would have been closer to the front-running Yankees and safely distant from the hard-charging Rays.
Resolved, then: Bard's had a bad week, In the bigger picture, he's had a disappointing month. His slump has been almost as puzzling as the reaction the slump has generated.
Some have taken this relatively small sample size -- four poor outings since Sept. 1 -- and used it as evidence that Bard is ill-suited to become the Red Sox' closer of the future, in turn necessitating the re-signing of Jonathan Papelbon.
Those people have it only half-right.
The Red Sox should re-sign Papelbon this offseason. Their motivation, however, has nothing to do with projecting Bard as his replacement.
Instead, the Red Sox should view the two as a tandem, two equally essential parts to late-inning success.
"I'm nothing without him,'' asserted Jonathan Papelbon Thursday, "and he's nothing without me."
Papelbon's logic is unassailable. The Sox desperately need Bard to get them to Papelbon and the ninth. And they need Papelbon to be the last line of defense when a late-inning lead -- and by extension, the game itself -- is one the line.
To suggest that the last handful of outings are some sort of proof Bard can't handle the pressure is absurd. Where were Bard's lack of nerves when he was stranding 29-of-32 baserunners into late August?
Bard's role as the primary set-up man is, in some significant ways, far more difficult than Papelbon's. While Papelbon usually enters a clean inning with no outs and no baserunners and often has to protect a lead of two or three runs, Bard frequently is called upon to clean up someone else's mess.
It's a role he's filled expertly -- until the last two weeks. Papelbon would have anywhere near the number of save opportunities he's had without Bard clearing the dreck in the seventh or eighth innings.
Laugh if you must at the "hold'' stat -- in the age of advanced metrics, it's hopelessly inadequate. But think of holds as the set-up version of a save: occasionally misleading and open to interpretation, but mostly meaningful.
If closers are ultimately judged by the number of times they successfully preserve a lead (measured in saves), then set-up men are similarly charged with maintaining the lead they've been given (measures in holds).
And on the matter of holds, Bard is second in the league. He's also the only Red Sox reliever since 1969 to have two seasons of 31 or more holds. Bard set the franchise record with 32 in 2010. Even with his recent struggles, he has the second-best WHIP among qualifying American League relievers.
The last two weeks excepting, Bard does his job so well that it would be ludicrous to ask him to do anything else. And having him replace Papelbon would be doubly ludicrous, since it would mean that the Sox would then need someone to replace Bard himself.
Those high-leverage innings are more diffucult to navigate than many save situations.
Conversely, until a pitcher has successfully walked the ninth-inning tightrope, then it can't automatically be assumed that Bard can necessarily do Papelbon's job. Recent baseball history is littered with guys who thrive in the seventh or eighth, but stumble in the ninth. (And a good morning to you, Mike Timlin).
That's why the answer isn't for the Red Sox to allow Papelbon to leave while slipping Bard into the closer's spot. Instead, the Sox should extend Papelbon -- either through arbitration for what surely would be a record award for a relief pitcher, or in a two- or three-year deal that would reward Papelbon with a better AAV (average annual value) in excess of his current 12 mullion.
Such a contract would enable Papelbon to boast of his salary standard-setting status, while protecting the Red Sox from the vagaries of long-term contracts for over-30 closers.
The notion that Bard's recent run of blown saves is indicative of some character flaw, and not what it so obviously is -- nothing more than a bad stretch -- is laughable. When Papelbon led the A.L. in blown saves last year,it didn't prevent him from returning this year and enjoying his best season since 2008.
Retaining Papelbon is critical, of course, but not because the Red Sox lack options at closer for 2012, but rather, because it would give them the best of both worlds in the bullpen.