Red Sox looking for home run

BOSTON -- On the eve of an eight-game homestand that begins Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell mentioned the obvious.

"We've got to play better at home," he said Sunday after the Red Sox won two out of three in Toronto, losing the series finale 7-1. "How we play at Fenway Park is going to be pivotal for us."

When the Red Sox opened the 2013 season with an 18-8 record in April, the best record in the majors, they won 11 of 16 games in Fenway Park, including the last five games they played at home that month, one against Oakland and a four-game sweep against the Houston Astros.

So far this season, the Sox are just 5-8 at Fenway Park, the tone set for their slow start when they were swept three straight by the Milwaukee Brewers in their home-opening set. Only the Angels and Astros have a worse home record in the AL, and it's a trend very different from the AL-best 53-28 home record the Red Sox had last season.

The three games against the Rays will be the last of 20 games in this opening stretch against AL East rivals for the Sox, who so far are 8-9 within the division. Of the five teams in the division, the Yankees (15-10) are the only ones with a winning record, and none of the five teams have a positive run differential to date. The Red Sox, who outscored opponents by 38 runs last April (135-97), so far are a minus-15, tied with Terry Francona's Indians for second-worst differential in the league. Only Houston (minus-46) has a worse run differential.

"I don't think it's the start everyone hoped we'd get off to record-wise," assistant GM Mike Hazen said this weekend in Toronto. "We've seen some good things. The starting pitching, for the most part, has given us consistency, though there have been some bumps on the road."

The Sox are third in the league in percentage of quality starts (62 percent), which speaks to the excellence that has been displayed by Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and John Lackey, but rank only ninth in starters' ERA (4.33), which underscores the knocks taken in the first month, primarily by Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz.

"Obviously, the bullpen has performed very well," Hazen said.

Indeed. The Sox bullpen ranks first in save percentage (88 percent), second in percentage of inherited runs scored (only 6-of-41, 15 percent) and second in relief ERA (3.07).

"I think the offense is starting to put a lot of guys on base, which we weren't doing," Hazen said. "I think we're starting to see, night in, night out, the approach that made us so successful from an offensive standpoint last season. We [struggled] the same last year in early April, but our record was better. I think we won some close low-scoring games, and one-run games. We don't have a good record in one-run games (3-5) but that's going to fluctuate. The Milwaukee series stands out. They were really good and came in and beat us.

"Getting swept early affects your record. It makes it harder to get back to .500."

The Sox are tied with the Rays for ninth in runs scored (105). Their .329 on-base percentage is seventh in the league; their .379 slugging percentage is 11th. And having set a major-league record in stolen base success rate last season, when they stole 123 out of 142 attempts, they've stolen just nine times while being caught seven times.

Farrell has struggled to find a leadoff man; Sox leadoff men are last in the majors with a .191 batting average, and 27th in on-base percentage (.280). Daniel Nava, who was Farrell's first choice, was sent back to the minors; with Shane Victorino back, Farrell hopes that a tandem of Dustin Pedroia and Victorino in the 1-2 spots will prove to be effective. Pedroia was on base five times in three games against the Jays, with four singles and a walk.

Hitting with runners in scoring position also has been problematic in the early going. The team's average with RISP is .218, 25th in baseball. Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the team's best hitter with runners in scoring position, batting .400 (10-for-25). Jonny Gomes, David Ortiz, A.J. Pierzynski, Mike Napoli and Xander Bogaerts are all .211 or worse with RISP.

Still, the Red Sox have had their full complement of players only three games, after Victorino came off the disabled list on Thursday and Will Middlebrooks on Friday. The Sox had a season-high 16 hits and scored eight runs Friday night, Pierzynski hit a grand slam and Middlebrooks followed with a solo shot as the Sox scored seven more Saturday, before knuckleballer R.A. Dickey cooled them off Sunday.

"On the defensive side, we are making more mistakes than we did at the end of last year," Hazen said.

Last season, the Red Sox ranked second in the American League in defensive efficiency (.694). So far this season, they're last (.654). Rookie shortstop Bogaerts has had a rough baptism, third base was a black hole, and the outfield permutations used by Farrell in the absence of Victorino were erratic, with the exception of Bradley, who has played Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.

"We're going to fix those things," Hazen said. "They're working on those things every single day. With a little more defensive consistency, hopefully the complete game comes together. We saw it [Wednesday night against the Yankees], the full effect of putting it together was really good.

"Those things are going to start to happen more frequently, and when it does I think the talent on this team is too good not to come forth, with the amount of preparation going on, the amount of how everybody wants it to happen. You can't force it to happen. You've got to trust that preparation, talent, approach is going to continue to make it happen."

And if it starts at home, all the better.