Sub-.500 Red Sox yet to find their mojo

BOSTON -- In their 32nd game of 2013, the Red Sox had three two-out hits to score runs, the last a walk-off RBI double in the bottom of the 11th inning by Stephen Drew that capped a 6-5 victory over the Minnesota Twins and lifted the club to 21-11.

It was the kind of win that defined their march to glory.

In their 32nd game of 2014, the Sox were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and two outs, hit into four double plays, twice failed to bunt runners over (or in) and ran into multiple outs in the late innings of what was eventually a 3-2, 10-inning loss to Oakland.

It was the kind of defeat that has defined a frustrating season-opening stretch for the 15-17 Red Sox.

Players and staff have suggested that the team’s run will come, and it probably will, in whatever form that takes. But the 2014 edition has continued to struggle when given opportunities to break through, whether that means a big hit in a big spot or a big victory when it had a chance to alter the win-loss record in a dramatic way.

Consider the following:

• Boston has lost eight consecutive games in which it could have improved to .500 (including Sunday), and many of those missed opportunities have involved blown chances within the games. The Red Sox have lost four of them by a single run and dropped a couple in extra innings. The Red Sox are 1-9 in games that could have upped their record to .500, the worst mark in the majors. The only team even close is the Padres at 1-7 in such games.

• The Red Sox are hitting .222 (with a .669 OPS) with runners in scoring position. That’s third-worst in the American League, behind only Cleveland (.221) and the lowly Astros (.202). Through 32 games last season, the Red Sox were hitting .302 with runners in scoring position, third-best in the majors. They finished the season at .278, also third-best in baseball.

• Through 32 games in 2013, Boston had three walk-off wins (one this year) and was 4-2 in one-run games (3-8 in 2014).

• Red Sox baserunners have scored 27 percent of the time this season. The only team in the American League that scores at a lesser rate is Houston.

• While some frown at the bunt, it is notable that after a missed chance by Jackie Bradley Jr. in Sunday’s loss to Oakland, Boston has been successful on just 29 percent of its sacrifice attempts, the second-lowest rate in the AL.

• The Sox are last in the AL in productive out percentage at 24 percent, meaning they are failing to advance a runner with an out a league-high 76 percent of the time.

For most teams, such inefficiency would yield a rather horrendous record. The Sox, at the very least, do get more runners on than most teams, so they have more opportunities. Also, their starters continue to give them every opportunity to, well, have opportunities. Particularly of late.

Since April 24, Red Sox starters rank second in ERA at 2.94, compared to a 4.36 mark over the first 22 games of the season.

Jon Lester, John Lackey and others have often fielded similar lines of questioning after solid starts that resulted in team losses due to many of the reasons noted earlier. The latest was Lackey, who allowed two runs in six innings against the A’s but left trailing 2-1 and watched as his team wasted chances in the later innings.

“I felt pretty good about it,” Lackey said Sunday. “Gave up a couple runs against a pretty good team.”

In short, he did his job. And the Red Sox lost. Although that is maddening at times, the club is pleased to know that the one area of the team it deems most crucial has performed well. Lackey, Lester and Clay Buchholz limited the A’s -- the league’s best road offense -- to three runs on 10 hits in 20 1/3 innings.

“They’re giving us what we expect or anticipated coming out of spring training,” Farrell said over the weekend. “We feel all along that our starting rotation might be the most important area of the team, and really for any team to advance in the postseason.

“You’re going to look at a rotation as being a strength or a strong area, and we’re going to need those guys to perform with [consistency].”

That need for consistent starting pitching is amplified by the relative lack of offensive production.

Former manager Terry Francona often talked about the stress of an inning or of a particular pitch as a factor that was just as important, or even more so, than pitch count. A guy might cruise through a 135-pitch perfect game with no physical issues, while another who battles through 98 pitches in six innings filled with baserunners will come out of it spent. That has relation to the score, as stress goes up when the margin for error is slim, as is often the case when the team is playing from behind and the offense fails to come through in the mid-to-late innings. That has been the case with Boston.

While much of it falls on the bullpen, it is notable that the Sox are seeing an uptick in pitching in high-leverage situations this year (8.4 plate appearances per game, compared to 8.1 in 2013). The difference seems minimal, but it adds up over time. A few more stressful at-bats per week, a dozen more a month could mean more than 100 from one year to the next by the time it is all said and done.

You have to wonder about the toll that takes on those all-important arms, and this is all before the weather warms and hitters get loose. Of course, the stress and strain on a quality staff goes the other way if Boston hitters can pick up the slack and take advantage of their opportunities at a greater rate. Right now, they have the look of a rather tight bunch.