BOSTON -- Given the current state of the Red Sox's bullpen, Daniel Bard doesn't have to be pitching in the Major Leagues right now.

Boston boasts arguably the best relief corps in baseball, a crew headlined by All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. The fiery stopper is joined by a trusted group of setup options, led by lefty Hideki Okajima.

Bard's inclusion in this vaunted bullpen is more of a luxury than a necessity, and that's just fine with manager Terry Francona.

In fact, it's ideal.

"He's done a great job of understanding what we're trying to do with him," said Francona, whose Red Sox will continue their series against the Royals on Saturday night at Fenway Park. "We didn't want to bring him up when it was a necessity. That was a big conversation we had when we were talking about bringing him up.

"We didn't want to call this kid up when there was an unbelievable need and have him pitch the eighth inning. He's understood that, and he's used it to his advantage."

Bard has certainly made the most of his opportunity, sporting a 2.78 ERA in 22 2/3 innings with 26 strikeouts since being summoned from Triple-A Pawtucket on May 10. The 24-year-old flamethrower has been Boston's most dominant reliever of late, posting four straight scoreless outings and a 1.80 ERA in his past eight appearances.

"I do think he's gaining confidence," Francona said of Bard, Boston's first-round selection in the 2006 Draft out of North Carolina. "The more innings he pitches, the more the game will slow down for him. A Major League game is much faster than Triple-A, especially when you pitch later in the game and teams are really trying to score.

"As things slow down for him, and his stuff continues to improve, that's a pretty good combination."

Pitching matchup
BOS: RHP John Smoltz (0-2, 6.60 ERA)
Smoltz remains a work in progress for the Red Sox, who have seen mixed results from the 42-year-old, who is coming off right shoulder surgery. He came undone in a four-run fourth inning on Monday against Oakland, suffering his second loss in three outings with Boston. The veteran allowed five runs on 10 hits over six innings, the most he's logged in a start since April 22, 2008. In one career appearance against the Royals, he recorded a three-out save.

KC: RHP Gil Meche (4-8, 4.14 ERA)
On Monday at Detroit, Meche ran up a high pitch count in a relatively short time for the second consecutive game. He was pulled after allowing two runs over 5 2/3 innings, but he threw 117 pitches. Both runs came on home runs, a recent trend for Meche. He yielded only two long balls through 14 starts this season, but has surrendered seven taters in his past four outings.

Tidbits
All-Star first baseman Kevin Youkilis has declined an invitation to participate in Monday's State Farm Home Run Derby in St. Louis. ... Friday's 1-0 victory over the Royals marked the first time since Sept. 5, 2006, that the Red Sox won a game in which they recorded three hits or fewer. ... With 38 stolen bases, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is tied with Harry Hooper (1911) for the ninth-highest single-season total in franchise history.

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Up next
• Sunday: Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 10-3, 3.62) vs. Royals (Bruce Chen, 0-3, 6.88), 1:35 p.m. ET
• Monday-Thursday: All-Star break