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Next test: Don’t get tripped up at home

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 30, 2012
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CHICAGO - Having conquered the road, it’s time for the Red Sox to establish themselves as a good home team.

“I don’t know,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine following Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the White Sox, ending a 6-1 trip. “We beat Tampa Bay, one of the best teams in baseball three out of four at home didn’t we? That’s what I remember.’’

But they lost two to the Rangers and two more to the Yankees, including a 15-9 defeat the last time the Sox played in the cozy confines of Fenway during which they squandered a 9-0 lead.

The players seemed to exhale as they left Boston, after hitting what Valentine called “rock bottom.’’

Whether they relaxed when they were on the road or whether it was simply a matter of playing the Twins, and then facing Phil Humber the start after his perfect game, the stars seemed to align.

The Sox even survived one of the best pitching performances against them - Jake Peavy’s complete-game 1-0 loss Saturday night. They couldn’t overcome nemesis Gavin Floyd Sunday, however.

“I don’t think we can establish ourselves more than we’ve established ourselves,’’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “After what happened before we left, to turn it around like we did shows a lot of what this team is all about. I think we’ve gotten some things in order. We all feel so good about our bullpen - two earned runs allowed in 17 2/3 innings - on the trip.’’

They come home a far more confident bunch than the one that left last Sunday.

They open a six-game stand Monday night against the A’s, who are 11-12 but are a team the Sox should beat. The Orioles come in Friday night, and they certainly have overachieved. They also kicked the Sox out of the playoffs last September, so Boston will have some redemption in mind.

“The Baltimore series will be one this team will look forward to because they’re a division rival and nobody who was here last year liked what happened at the end of last year,’’ said Saltalamacchia. “We need to establish ourselves as a good team, period, not just on the road or at home, but everywhere. Winning series, no matter who we’re against, is what we’re trying to do the rest of the way.’’

The Sox head to Kansas City for a three-game set vs. the Royals May 7-9 before returning to Fenway for four vs. Cleveland and two vs. Seattle.

The road ahead is not as bad as the first 14 games against the Tigers, Blue Jays, Rays, Rangers, and Yankees.

With the American League East all bunched up, the Sox now believe they belong in the mix. The Rays have started to inch above the pack, but the Sox did beat them three out of four.

Since the April 21 debacle vs. the Yankees, the Sox have established a few things:

■Alfredo Aceves can succeed in the closer role. He appears to have the mind-set for it and his amped-up velocity has been impressive.

■Marlon Byrd has been a very good replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. He has brought some energy to the team and obviously enjoys playing.

“This is a really good team,’’ Byrd said. “I think we showed that on this road trip. We’ve got guys like [Ryan] Sweeney and [Cody] Ross coming up with big hits, Saltalamacchia is showing all that power, Big Papi is really hitting the ball well, [Mike] Aviles has been great, [Dustin] Pedroia is one of the best players in the league. We’ve got a lot of talent around here so we need to go home and continue everything we’ve done on this trip.

“The pitching we’ve had should win us a lot of games.’’

■Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Daniel Bard, and Felix Doubront all had good starts on the trip. The concern remains Clay Buchholz, who will start Monday night’s game with an 8.87 ERA. He has been the one weak link in Boston’s 10-11 start, more specifically during the trip.

Having Buchholz establish himself as the No. 3 starter is paramount.

■David Ortiz continued his hot start during the trip, with another double Sunday, off Floyd.

“We got to go home and play like we’ve always played at home - at our best,’’ Ortiz said. “None of us liked what happened the last few games over there. That’s our house and we’ve got to take care of business there. We can’t have teams come in there kicking our [butts]. We have to be the ones who do that. We got to make sure that teams know we can be a tough team at home.’’

■The team has some toughness. Ortiz and general manager Ben Cherington both used that term over the weekend.

“I like the fact our team showed toughness in coming back from the tough games we played at home,’’ Cherington said. “The way they responded showed a lot of character. We just have to keep building on that. We believed in our roster when we left camp and we’ve had some injuries, but we have good players and we’re seeing what happens when they start putting together good at-bats and good pitching performances.’’

■Valentine is settling in. He had a rough go at Fenway when he was booed after saying Kevin Youkilis wasn’t “physically and emotionally’’ into the game. He also heard it about a bullpen move or two. After this recovery from the shaky start, one wonders what the Fenway Faithful will do when Valentine next walks out of the dugout to make a pitching change.

As April ends, we are reminded of what most astute baseball people always tell us: “Do not make any evaluations based on April, because if you do you’ll kick yourself later.’’

Some teams start out hot and then fade. Some start cold and excel when the weather starts to get warmer.

But there are baby steps along the way.

The Sox conquered the road. Now they must take back their home.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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