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Change of coast pays big for Bard

Change of coast pays big for Bard

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- A growing sense of apprehension washed over catcher Josh Bard each time he knelt behind the plate last April while with the Boston Red Sox.

It wasn't because he didn't have any idea where any of Tim Wakefield's knuckleballs were heading but because he was never really certain if the ball would end up inside his mitt or not.

In a miserable stretch in April, Bard was charged with 10 passed balls over his first five games with the Red Sox, including seven during a two-game stretch when he caught -- or, at least, attempted to -- Wakefield.

"I would catch them in the bullpen fine, then would get out in the games and miss the ones I thought I could catch and [catch] the ones I thought I dropped," Bard said. "There will probably never be a time when I'm as embarrassed as I was dropping those pitches."

Oddly enough, dropping those pitches might have been the best thing to ever happen to the 28-year-old Bard, as his inability to corral Wakefield's pitches led to a May 1 trade through which the Red Sox shipped Bard and pitcher Cla Meredith to the Padres for Doug Mirabelli, who had served as Wakefield's personal catcher in the past.

"It's a little funny that the best thing that's happened to me in my career is also probably the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me," Bard said. "But it opened the door for me to come here."

Mirabelli went on to hit .191, Wakefield won just seven games and the Red Sox -- one year removed from winning the World Series -- finished in third place in the American League East, 11 games behind the New York Yankees.

The Padres? They made out considerably better, as Meredith posted an impressive 1.07 ERA in 24 games, including a blissful stretch in which he didn't allow a run in 28 straight appearances spanning 33 2/3 innings.

Then there was Bard, who despite a career .240 average parlayed a new opportunity in his new digs into a .338 batting average, nine home runs and 40 RBIs in 93 games while sharing time with future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza.

"Coming here was huge for me, and even though Piazza was here and I knew he'd get the majority of playing time, I hoped down the road there would be an opportunity for more playing time," he said.

That time is now, as Bard enters the season as the Padres starting catcher, and he will likely play in 130 or so games, something he's never done before.

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He is also charged with handling a staff that includes, among others, Greg Maddux and David Wells, who between them have 563 career Major League victories.

Sit, watch and listen? That's not Bard's style, which is why he was such a big hit with Padres pitchers last season.

"Initially, you want to watch and listen and see what guys are comfortable with," he said. "But I have a tremendous amount of respect for my pitchers no matter if they have won 330 games or 10 games. You're not just a warm body back there. You are there to take charge and give energy."

That's precisely what starting pitcher Chris Young saw, and it didn't take him long to see that Bard's preparation -- which includes exhaustive film study of pitchers and talking to the pitcher himself -- was equally as impressive as any of his tangible skills.

"Josh was extremely well prepared the first time he caught me, and I threw the ball well to him immediately," Young said. "That showed me just how dedicated he was and [how] well prepared he was. He really cares about being a good catcher behind the plate and not just an offensive catcher."

Though the Padres are certainly excited about Bard's switch-hitting ability as well as his offensive upside, they like his defense as well. Bard considers defense his forte, which is why what happened in Boston still bothers him.

"If you're a team player, you want to go out and do your best," he said. "It's not fun when you see Wake battling his [behind] off, throwing the ball well, and we're not winning games. There's not a lot of guys that can catch the knuckleball, I understand that. But that was my job, and I didn't do it."

He did in San Diego, and now the Padres are counting on him to do so again this season.

"He's to the point now where we feel he's ready to lead a pitching staff, to get a majority of the workload," manager Bud Black said. "Having the service time he has, he should be ready. There should be no surprises to him as to what he needs to do. He's ready to assume a role of significant importance on the team."

The rest, he knows, is up to him. He was humbled by what happened last season with the Red Sox, though he's convinced that he's a better person and a player for going through all that.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity to be here," he said. "I feel like I established myself a little last year, but I feel like I still have a little bit of chip on my shoulder. There's a lot I have to prove."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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