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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Schilling's form spoke volumes

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He's been more style than substance since that October Sunday night at Fenway when he bled into his sock and established himself as superhero/ultimate warrior/Boston sports deity.

In the year and a half since that night, Curt Schilling appeared before Congress, sold a lot of trucks, and rendered opinions on everything from the Federal Reserve to the levees in New Orleans -- but he wasn't able to do much on the mound. He struggled to win eight games last year on an ankle that looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone. His ERA was 5.69 and he gave up 121 hits in 93 1/3 innings.

Now Schilling is back. At least he was yesterday. In the Sox' first Opening Day win since 2000, Big Schill stuffed the slugging Rangers, holding Texas to five hits and two runs over seven innings in an impressive 7-3 victory over the team that used to be owned by Schilling's favorite president.

''Curt looked great," said Sox owner John W. Henry, who watched the early innings in the lower boxes. ''That was as big as the win today. Bigger, actually. It means a tremendous amount to this club to see him healthy and pitching well."

Catcher Jason Varitek seconded that emotion, saying, ''Curt set the tone, big-time, for us. People don't understand the severity of the injury he had and he still tried to pitch for us. If he throws the ball like he did today, we're going to have a chance to win a lot of games."

Schilling was 21-6 for the Red Sox in that magical season of 2004, his first in Boston. But he was getting shots in his ankle after April that season and yesterday said he's feeling stronger than he has at any time since 2002 (23-7 for Arizona). This is bad news for American League hitters and great news for Red Sox Nation.

''He is at the top of his game," said Rangers skipper Buck Showalter, who managed Schilling briefly with Arizona in 2000. ''You've got to tip your hat to him. When you are playing against a guy like him, there is not much room for error."

Schilling (3-0 in six openers, only one with Boston) wore a cap with the inscription ''whatever it takes," under the bill. What it took on this day was 117 pitches, 79 for strikes and very few of them split-fingered fastballs. He walked only one batter.

''I was very focused today," said Schilling, who'll turn 40 in November. ''We had a tremendous advance scouting report [filed by Dana Levangie and Kyle Evans]. I was locating very well at the beginning, then my velocity showed up in the fourth inning."

He retired the first eight batters before surrendering a single to rookie Ian Kinsler with two outs in the third. With two out and one on in the fourth, he blew away Hank Blalock with a 95 m.p.h. fastball. The Rangers reached him for a pair in the sixth on a single by Phil Nevin and a line drive homer to right by Blalock on a 1-and-1 pitch.

Schilling was almost at 100 pitches after the eventful sixth, and probably wouldn't have come out for the seventh if not for his status as resident player-manager. Big Schill still felt strong and wanted to face the bottom third of the Texas lineup. He got Rangers in order, finishing his day when he induced a routine grounder to third from Kinsler. On his way to the dugout, Schill congratulated plate umpire Gary Darling on a job well done.

The game was played in perfect 77-degree temperatures and drew an Ameriquest Field record crowd of 51,541. Among those in the crowd was 43-year-old recruit Roger Clemens, who sat with Rangers owner Tom Hicks as part of the first official visit of his free agent tour. Schilling said he had no conversation with Clemens. Big Schill was focused on the task at hand when Clemens visited the Sox clubhouse before the game. Roger, no doubt, would understand.

''I spent all spring trying to figure it out and didn't know until today how it was going to work out," said Schilling. ''This was very encouraging. I take a lot of pride in where I sit in the rotation. I want to be at the top of this rotation. This is what I was like in 2002."

All in all, a great opener for the Red Sox.

''This is one of the best days of the year," said general manager Theo Epstein. (CEO Larry Lucchino was conspicuously absent on this day, but Henry insisted Larry was not locked in the basement back at Fenway.)

''I was trying to be low-key about it," Epstein went on, ''but last night I was waking up every hour on the hour. I'm proud of what our players and coaches have done this spring and it's nice to have the focus on baseball again after a winter when baseball too often took a back seat. We're happy to get going again."

And they're very happy to see the return of their ace.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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