Early in camp, during his spring starts, after his one rehabilitation start, and following his three regular-season starts, Curt Schilling emphatically said his surgically repaired right ankle was the least of his worries. His arm strength, mechanics, and sharpness, those were the issues that needed addressing.
Yesterday, however, Schilling showed up in the Sox' clubhouse wearing a boot on his right foot and leg almost identical to the plastic cast worn by David Wells.
Schilling, as soon as today, will join Wells on the disabled list. Schilling's diagnosis is a bone bruise just above his ankle. He will wear the boot for two weeks, and he's not sure just yet how much, if any, throwing he'll be able to do in that time. His official timetable, then, to return is two weeks plus.
The 38-year-old righthander traced the bruise to a pitch he threw Saturday at Tampa Bay. In the sixth inning of that game, Schilling wanted to start Travis Lee with a fastball, and he reached back for something extra.
"The way it was explained to me, the ankle bone was just not ready to take the force I put on it the other day," Schilling said. "I think it was the hardest pitch I've thrown this year. It was the first time I was really trying to reach back and throw the ball. I got there, and I felt it."
Schilling said he felt a "sharp pain" but finished the inning, then went back out and pitched the seventh without telling anyone he was in pain.
"I didn't feel the need to," he said. "I guess my initial thought was maybe I dislodged or broke some scar tissue, which was a good thing. I knew the next day when I got up that it had not changed. If anything, it had gotten worse. It hasn't gotten any better.
"I was told if we did try to pitch with it, there was a very legitimate possibility I could break the bone and then the season could be done. That didn't seem to be an attractive alternative."
General manager Theo Epstein's understanding is that Schilling has not reinjured a part of the ankle that was repaired during surgery in the offseason. Rather, he hurt himself in a way consistent with a weak ankle.
"That general area has been through a lot with major surgery and rehab, and might be more susceptible to a bone bruise like this," Epstein said. "This type of thing can happen when you have an area of your body that's being stressed from surgery and stressed from a rehab program.
"Whether it could have been prevented or not, I'm confident our doctors and training staff and Curt did the right thing coming back when he did. If we rushed him back for Opening Day I might have felt that [we made a mistake]. We let all the right things dictate his return. He said his ankle felt fantastic, 100 percent. This was unforeseen."
Schilling was scheduled to start tomorrow night in Texas. Yesterday's rainout against Baltimore worked in the Sox' favor, given their current dearth of starting pitching. Tim Wakefield, scheduled to go yesterday, will start tomorrow in the opener of a three-game series against the Rangers, and the beginning of a seven-game road trip. Bronson Arroyo pitches Saturday, Matt Clement Sunday, and John Halama will move into the starting rotation Monday against Detroit.
Tuesday's starter was undecided as of yesterday afternoon, though manager Terry Francona said emphatically, "It's not going to be Wade Miller."
Miller, who missed half of last season with a frayed rotator cuff, pitches tonight in Pawtucket, R.I., in his third rehab start and first above Single A. He's expected to throw 90 pitches, then make another rehab start Tuesday, probably with the PawSox. His next scheduled start after Tuesday would be May 8. That could be his Sox debut; the team is home against Seattle that day.
"We owe it to Wade Miller and this organization not to rush him," Epstein said. "We've said all along that circumstances with the big-league team wouldn't dictate when Miller is activated. His readiness would dictate that."
The Sox will make a roster move today, in all likelihood calling up PawSox starter Jeremi Gonzalez. The 30-year-old righthander went six innings (three hits, one run) Tuesday night. If Gonzalez does pitch Tuesday, that would mean the Sox would start Tampa Bay's 2004 long reliever (Halama) and someone who made eight starts with Tampa Bay last season (Gonzalez) on consecutive days.
The Sox also face the possibility that Bronson Arroyo could be suspended in the wake of his ejection Sunday for hitting Devil Ray Chris Singleton with a pitch after the teams had been issued warnings.
"It's not an ideal situation," Epstein said. "It's never completely unforeseen that you might have a pitcher go down. Having [Schilling and Wells] both go down in 24 hours makes it seem pretty dramatic. But we can withstand this."
Even yesterday, in the wake of his setback, Schilling didn't feel he came back too soon this season.
"I didn't feel like I did," he said. "I really didn't."
That said, Schilling has experienced fluctuations in velocity this season that he couldn't explain. Now, he has an understanding.
"I felt like I threw much better in March than I did in April," he said. "A lot of things were really confusing me in the three, four games I pitched, including the rehab start. My last two games, there were five or six at-bats I started somebody off with a fastball that was 87 [miles per hour] and came back with a cutter that was 90. That probably puzzled me more than anything. That signaled to me mechanically that something needed to be fixed.
"Not being able to fix them immediately is not something I'm used to. More than anything is feel. I haven't had the feel in my legs and in my arms that I rely on to be consistent. The other day was as bad as I've felt in a long, long time. I went out there with the mind-set that I was going to have to locate whatever velocity I had.
"I think this answered some questions for me. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing, I don't know."
Schilling will travel with the team to Texas and Detroit, figuring he can still be of value as a veteran presence in pitchers' meetings.
One of his stated goals in the coming weeks is maintaining, if not expanding, his aerobic activity, probably in a swimming pool. He acknowledged the need to shed some weight, which stands to benefit his mechanics and reduce stress on his traumatized ankle.
"[Weight has] been a lot less of a problem recently," he said. "We've been able to push the aerobic side much more the last three weeks than in the previous 5 1/2 months. That's been a huge benefit and will continue to be one."
The sight of Schilling and Wells comparing plastic boots yesterday -- Wells's is white, Schilling's is a sleeker black -- was not a good sight. Wells turns 42 next month, Schilling is 38, and both are expected to carry significant pitching loads this season and beyond.
Wells, who has a sprained plantar fascia ligament in his right foot, is signed for this year and next for $8 million guaranteed, plus as much as $10 million in incentives triggered by starts made. Schilling is due close to $40 million from the beginning of this year to the end of 2007.
"I think it's a fact that guys 38 don't recover like guys 28," Francona said. "That being said, Schill was hurt last year and did things some 28-year-olds can't do. We're relying on that, too."
Still, Schilling made two starts on that bad ankle last postseason and couldn't have made any more. Now, he's facing a full season, not to mention two more, with the potential for problems.
"We knew we weren't going to get a healthy Schilling coming out of spring training," said Johnny Damon. "Even I questioned the fact he was coming back. But Schilling wants to be out there pitching. Even if he's not 100 percent, he's better than most. I'm glad he gave it a try. But we're going to need to pick him up like he's picked us up in the past."
The Sox pride themselves on their resiliency, but the fact is this team didn't have one pitcher miss a start in '04 because of injury.
"These are real serious challenges," Epstein said. "But we think they are short-term challenges, and we think we can get through it."