Can Red Sox avoid slow start?

The sour taste of September lingers.

Even with new faces at the helm of the Boston Red Sox, it will take actual games for the fresh start to become a reality.

That is, unless the Sox get off to yet another slow start.

For three straight seasons, the Red Sox have stumbled out of the gate. In 2009, Boston started 2-6 before rebounding with 11 straight wins. The hole was much deeper in 2010. Boston started 4-9, and didn't get above .500 for good until May 19.

And then there was last season.

At 0-6, the Red Sox matched the second-worst start in franchise history. It was the worst since they began 1945 at 0-8.

The bleeding didn't really stop until the Red Sox were 2-10. By then, the New York Yankees already held a five-game lead in the division.

For the second straight year, Boston was below .500 at the end of April. That hadn't happened in consecutive years since 1984-85. It hasn't happened in three straight years since the 1970s.

As daunting as it seemed at the time, the 2-10 start is merely a footnote to last season thanks to a disastrous September. Of course, it's worth noting that even with a 7-20 September, Boston would have been playoff-bound were it not for the 2-10 start. After April 15, Boston held the third best record in the American League at 88-62.

Look at it this way: Boston was good enough to endure a 2-10 start or a 7-20 month. Just not both.

Between disasters, no one was better than Boston. From April 16 (after the 2-10 start) to Aug. 31, the Red Sox were 81-42. That was the best record in baseball during that span, including six-and-a-half games better than any AL team.

In each of the past three seasons, the Red Sox have bounced back from slow starts. They might be able to do the same thing in 2012. But in his first season as manager, that's not what Bobby Valentine has in mind.

So can the Red Sox avoid a fourth straight slow start?

The schedule has done them no favors. Four of Boston's first five opponents made the playoffs last season. ANd the news on Andrew Bailey doesn't bode well, either.

The common characteristics of the previous three starts offer a recipe for what Boston needs to avoid.

Last season, the Red Sox were hitting .224 with a .669 OPS through 12 games. The situation was even worse with runners in scoring position, when Boston hit .196 with a .552 OPS. That included a stretch of three hits in 37 at-bats. The low point was a 1-for-17 performance with RISP against the Yankees on April 9.

Quite simply, the Red Sox didn't take advantage of scoring opportunities.

The same held true for the slow starts in the previous two seasons. In 2010, Boston hit .162 with RISP during its 4-9 start. In 2009, it was .217 while going 2-6.

The easiest target for Boston's annual slow start is Jon Lester. Consider that prior to April 15, Lester is 1-6 with a 5.79 ERA. After that, he's 75-28 with a 3.38 ERA.

The numbers are even uglier for his first start of the season. Since 2008, he's allowed 18 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings in his season debut, an 8.38 ERA.

Last year, the rotation had a 6.71 ERA through 12 games. Interestingly, Lester's ERA was 3.72 during that stretch.

While the rotation struggled, the bullpen was just as much to blame, with a 6.92 ERA during the 2-10 start.

Last season, there was no greater barometer to Boston's success than Daniel Bard. During the 2-10 start, he was 0-2 with a 9.64 ERA. In September, he went 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA. Together, Bard went 0-6 with a 10.34 ERA during the bad stretches.

But between April 16 and Aug. 31, he posted a 1.41 ERA.

How important was he to Boston's success? When Bard pitched a scoreless outing, the Red Sox were 44-11. When Bard gave up a run, the Red Sox were 4-11.