Sox ride spurt of optimism into break

HOUSTON -- Well, at least it ended on a positive note.

The worst first half of Red Sox baseball in nearly 20 years concluded Sunday with an 11-0 win over the Houston Astros. After hobbling through much of the first three months and the first week of July, the Red Sox enter the All-Star break winners of four of five.

It was their best five-game stretch in six weeks.

"We recognize the struggles of the first half, but to go into the break with some momentum is something that we're hopeful that we'll continue to build on," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "We haven't conceded anything. We know that there's a little bit of a hole to climb out of, but this is a confident group that's playing well right now."

Farrell reflected on the biggest surprises and disappointments of the first half for the reigning World Series champs.

"The biggest disappointment is our record," Farrell said. "There's a few things that contribute to that. The biggest surprise is collectively, the level that we've been able to produce runs, and individually, the emergence of Brock Holt."

Holt has been the most consistent of the rookies who have played well, giving the Red Sox reason to be optimistic about the future. On Sunday, Holt had Boston's first five-hit game in more than four years.

Holt's consistency in the leadoff spot alongside his ability to play a wide variety of positions has given Farrell flexibility to tweak the roster and seek catalysts for success.

If catcher Christian Vazquez can even closely approach his production through his first three games, he will join Holt as a major bright spot. The last rookie Red Sox catcher before Vazquez to post back-to-back multi-RBI games?

Carlton Fisk in 1972.

Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr., also have shown glimpses of greatness in their rookie campaigns.

"We've got some talented young players that bring energy and enthusiasm," Farrell said. "Because there's some newness to it, I think it energizes everyone in our uniform. But regardless of what our roster is comprised of, our goal is the same. That's to go out and win and hopefully, get to the point where we're playing in the postseason."

Farrell clearly is not ready to write off the Red Sox in 2014.

At nine games under .500, the Red Sox have their worst record at the All-Star break since 1997 when Jimy Williams was the manager, Nomar Garciaparra was a rookie and Tim Duncan was freshly stolen from the Celtics two weeks prior.

On the bright side for the Red Sox, the AL East is pretty bad, collectively having one of its worst seasons in recent memory. At the conclusion of Sunday's game, the Sox were just nine games out of first place with 67 games remaining.

"What we hope to accomplish is to dig out of the hole that we're in right now and to make movement north in our division with the thought that we're able to contend," Farrell said. "That's not out of our minds right now."

Call him crazy, but if the starting rotation can continue to improve the way it has across the last few weeks, Farrell's team might have a chance.

Granted, the Red Sox were playing the Houston Astros, who rank 23rd in runs and second-to-last in batting average. But after Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz delivered their best starts of the season on back-to-back days, things are looking up.

Buchholz's three-hit shutout helped him shave nearly a run off his earned run average. He entered Sunday with a 6.11 ERA and walked out of Minute Maid Park with a 5.42 mark. He credited the improvement over his last few starts to sharpened command of his secondary pitches.

Buchholz said when he first returned from the disabled list, he was relying heavily on just two pitches. On Sunday, everything was working.

For a pitcher, the difference is massive.

"It's night and day," Buchholz said. "It's tough going out in a big league baseball game with just two pitches across multiple innings. It makes it a lot tougher on yourself, and I've done a lot of work to get command of those pitches back."

He was greeted in the tunnel outside the clubhouse by a large gathering of family and friends who made the trip from his nearby hometown of Nederland. When asked how many supporters he had on hand for his first game in Minute Maid Park since high school select ball, he didn't even try to guess.

"I have no idea," Buchholz said. "A lot. More than 20 ... it's pretty neat."

It was a triumphant return to the top that took a long and winding road. He said he hasn't doubted himself since 2008, but this season hasn't been easy on him.

"I've come back before from being really bad," Buchholz said. "It's a matter of confidence, and you can't get confidence without results. It takes a day like the last three games I've pitched to keep building confidence, and today was the cherry on top."

If confidence is what the Red Sox need to start winning, they'll have another good chance to gain some when they return from the All-Star break to host the 48-46 Kansas City Royals.