Quick hits: Middlebrooks fighting slump

BOSTON -- A few quick hits before Thursday night’s series opener:

* Since his three-run home run Monday night, Will Middlebrooks is hitless in his last nine at-bats. Since hitting three home runs in Toronto on April 7, Middlebrooks has just five hits in 55 at-bats, an .090 average. He said this is by far the worst slump he has ever experienced.

"We've got to get him back to swinging at strikes, first and foremost," manager John Farrell said. "That will allow that swing to play. He's expanded the zone up, he's expanded the zone off the plate, when he swings at strikes he puts a very consistent swing on a pitch."

* Clay Buchholz will be looking to become the majors’ first five-game winner Thursday night against the American League’s biggest loser, Philip Humber, who was the only AL pitcher with four losses until the Red Sox beat Oakland’s Brett Anderson on Wednesday night.

It’s just over a year to the day that Humber pitched a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox -- April 21, 2012 -- and he has known nothing but misery on the field since. He went 2-4 with a 7.47 ERA in 10 starts after the perfecto, wound up on the disabled list with a sore elbow, and was yanked out of the rotation after four more rough starts in July. Houston, the city where he had starred in college at Rice, claimed him off waivers this winter, but Humber has found a hard road so far -- 0-4, 6.63 ERA, including his last start in which he was charged with eight runs in a third of an inning against the Indians.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated last December, Humber was philosophical about the course his career has taken.

"There are very few guys in our game that are just dominant, and those are the guys that are making millions and millions of dollars," Humber told the magazine. "Most guys are like me -- they have a lot of ability but haven't figured out how to exactly put it together consistently. I'm still searching for that. But I'm also one of the lucky ones. Even if I never find that place, I know I've made a mark. I know that perfect game is always going to be there."

* Buchholz’s 0.90 ERA is the lowest by a Sox starter after four starts since Pedro Martinez opened the 1998 season with an 0.84 ERA through four starts. Martinez gave up three earned runs in 5 1/3 innings in his next start, in Detroit, his ERA jumping to 1.69.

* Jacoby Ellsbury’s next stolen base will be the 200th of his career. Assuming it comes in the next five games, it also will break his club record for most steals in April, 10, which he set in 2009, the year he stole a club record 70. Ellsbury has yet to be caught this season; Jason Castro is catching for the Astros tonight and has thrown out 2 of 12 base-stealers.

* This is the eighth series the Sox have played so far this season. They’ve won the opener of all eight series. They’re 7-2 lifetime against the ‘Stros, sweeping them in Houston in 2011, the last time they met.

* According to the Sox, about 1,400 fans holding tickets from Tuesday’s 13-0 loss played in horrific conditions took advantage Wednesday of the Sox offer for free admission with a ticket stub. The Sox made the same offer for Thursday night’s game.

* Had some fun in the morning report with Oakland reliever Grant Balfour, whose string of f-bombs Wednesday could be heard loud and clear, even in the pressbox. Andrew Bailey and Balfour were teammates in Oakland.

“He’s a great guy, man," Bailey said. “He’s awesome. He’s a great teammate, and pitches with a lot of pride and adrenaline, as do I. He wears his heart on his sleeve. Whatever happens out there happens, and he lets it go. He’s a lot of fun, a lot of high energy out there, that’s really it."

* It may have come as a surprise to some that Alfredo Aceves still had options, which is why the Sox were able to send him to Pawtucket without exposing him to waivers. Here is a list of the Sox players who are out of options: Craig Breslow, Felix Doubront, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, Clayton Mortensen, David Ross, Pedro Ciriaco, Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava.