Cupcake start to important stretch

This is as close as you can come to a layup in baseball.

Anything less than a sweep of their three-game set in Houston this week, and the Red Sox risk looking back in October and lamenting the fact that a game they gave away to the Astros is why they find themselves in the play-in wild-card game instead of being division winners. Or why they missed the playoffs altogether.

Good teams don't lose to the Astros. The Sox swept them in Boston in April, winning four straight by a combined score of 28-10. The three AL division leaders -- the Red Sox, Tigers and Athletics -- have a combined 21-2 record against the Stros. Oakland has beaten them 11 of 12 times.

The Orioles, Indians, Rays and Rangers are a combined 18-7 against Houston, which has lost 13 of 16 since the All-Star break and six of its last seven, including four losses by one run, another by two.

The Sox play 16 of their next 19 on the road, their only visit home coming Aug. 16-18 against the Yankees. With any luck, the Yanks will be out of the race by then; if not, the Sox can deliver the final push. The Yanks begin play 9½ games out of the division lead, with three teams ahead of them, and are 4½ games out for a wild-card spot, tied with the Royals. Derek Jeter may be headed back to the DL, the A-Rod circus is about to pitch its tent again on premises, and CC Sabathia is 0-3 with a 10.91 ERA in his past three starts.

The season ends in less than eight weeks. The Sox have 49 games left. They're on a pace to win 97-plus games. The simulation tool employed by Baseball Prospectus to calculate playoff odds projects the Sox to win 94.8 games. That looks conservative. If they go one game over .500 the rest of the way, they win 93 games. Baseball Prospectus calculates Boston's odds of making the playoffs at 95.8 percent. It has the Yankees at 4.9 percent.

Cautionary note: On Sept. 1, 2011, the BP odds machine gave the Sox a 99 percent chance of going to the playoffs. Instead, they went 7-20 and you know the rest.

"What's good about this team, we don't think ahead,'' shortstop Stephen Drew said. "We've got a lot of veteran guys here that have been to the playoffs and understand it, so I think for us, it's about not losing focus and just coming out and playing hard every day."

Some other random observations:

• How to endear yourself to your new fan base:

One, you pitch the way Jake Peavy did Saturday night. Two, you do so while exhibiting a passion that energizes everyone around you. Three, on your way back to the dugout at the end of an inning, you take a quick detour and give the ball to a young fan. And finally, you respond to a standing ovation and while tipping your cap mouth the words, "Thank you."

Said Sox reliever Matt Thornton, who played with Peavy in Chicago: "There are times I wonder if Jake Peavy is a pitcher or a rock star.''

Jonny Gomes is making the numbers lie.

You look at the stat sheet, and Gomes had a lousy homestand: One hit in 12 at-bats, which translates to an .083 average.

Yet the hit came in the ninth inning of Boston's epic rally from five runs down against the Mariners on Thursday night, driving in the tying run. In the top of the inning, he snuffed out a rally by throwing out Kendrys Morales at third base. Saturday night against Arizona, he threw out Cliff Pennington at the plate to help preserve another Sox win.

"Some people might judge the book by the cover, and it's not an accurate one in this case," Farrell said. "He's a smart player. He has a feel for the history of the game to those that are currently in it, to every situation that comes up. He's very much in tune. He's in tune with every move that [bench coach] Torey [Lovullo] and I discuss. He thinks the game like a manager. As a role player, you have to. That's why he's very good at it."

• The other Soggy Bottom boy, Mike Napoli, did have a rough homestand, with just three singles and 11 strikeouts in 22 at-bats. He continues to be the streakiest hitter on the team, which is the way he profiled when the Red Sox got him.

Napoli has struck out 144 times, one fewer than big league leader Chris Carter of the Astros, and is on a pace to strike out 206 times. That would obliterate Mark Bellhorn's club record of 177 whiffs in 2004, and it would put him in the company of the three other players with 200 or more whiffs in a season: Mark Reynolds (three times), Adam Dunn and Drew Stubbs. Reynolds holds the major league record of 223 whiffs, set in 2009, the year he hit 44 home runs for Arizona.

Napoli has 14 home runs in 427 plate appearances, which is already 10 more PAs than he had last season with Texas, when he hit 24 home runs in 417 PAs. He is on a pace to finish with 20 home runs, which would be his fewest since 2009, when he hit 20 for the Angels in 432 plate appearances.

Twelve big league first basemen have more home runs than Napoli, including Adrian Gonzalez, who lamented the loss of his home run swing earlier this season but has hit 15 homers. Seven first basemen have a higher WAR than Napoli's 2.3, including Gonzalez (2.9). Napoli is tied with former Sox prospect Anthony Rizzo, now with the Cubs.

Napoli has almost doubled his $5 million base salary by reaching another $4.5 million in performance bonuses for days on the roster and plate appearances. He is on a pace for 612 plate appearances, which would cause him to fall just short of the 625 plate appearances he needs for the final $1 million of the $8 million performance bonuses built into his contract. He still could collect the full amount by being on the active roster for 165 days; he has not been on the disabled list to date, and if he avoids the DL the rest of the way he'll cash in the full amount.

• With two home runs and a team-leading eight RBIs on the homestand, Dustin Pedroia is showing signs of breaking out of his prolonged slump; he is hitting just .154 (10-for-65) since the All-Star break. Pedroia's average on balls in play is just .140 since the break, compared to .348 before the break, which suggests that the slump is approaching its expiration date.

• In case you missed it: Jacoby Ellsbury stole his 40th base of the season on Saturday, placing him in the company of Hall of Famer Tris Speaker as the only Sox players with three seasons of 40 or more stolen bases. Ellsbury has been caught just three times this season; in the two seasons in which Baseball-reference.com has records, Speaker was caught 28 times while stealing 52 bases, and caught 29 times while stealing 42 bases.

Only three players have stolen 40 bases or more in a season with a better success rate than Ellsbury's current 93.023 percent. Ichiro Suzuki stole 45 bases while being caught just twice in 2006, a 95.745 percent success rate. Jimmy Rollins stole 47 bases in 50 attempts in 2008, a 94 percent rate; and Carlos Beltran stole 42 bases in 45 attempts in 2004, a 93.333 percent success rate.

At his current pace, Ellsbury would finish with 57 stolen bases. The record for stolen base percentage for players with 50 or more stolen bases is 91.228 percent, set by Jerry Mumphrey in 1980, when he stole 52 bases while being caught five times. Ellsbury is ahead of that rate.

Ellsbury has gone his past 42 games without being caught stealing, while stealing 10 bases in that time. Matt Wieters of the Orioles was the last catcher to throw him out, on June 13. Ellsbury had stolen 14 times in just eight games before being caught by Wieters.