ARLINGTON, Texas -- One could sense Curt Schilling tensing up in the clubhouse. Relieved of his duties after just 102 pitches, after seven "shut-up" innings of four-hit, one-run baseball, Schilling was helpless as the man once heralded as the potential Red Sox closer walked the eighth and ninth batters in the Rangers' order in a game the Sox led by just two runs. Then that man, Joel Pineiro, himself was walking off the mound, the bases loaded, his job far from completed.
Then -- after Javier Lopez got an out but an inherited runner scored -- came the relief. Ah, the relief.
Jonathan Papelbon, the closer whose return to that spot was officially confirmed on Schilling's 38pitches.com blog, walked to the mound. There was purpose to his steps from the center field bullpen to the hill to face the Rangers' best hitter, Michael Young, with one out and men on first and third in a one-run game. It was just about one year after the last time he conquered Texas, having been handed the ball in the third game of last season over incumbent closer Keith Foulke, a game even Papelbon admitted came to his mind last night.
"We had a little bit more of an idea what to expect this time around," manager Terry Francona said after Papelbon finished off the 3-2 sweep-averting win. "But he was devastating. And we needed every bit of that, or we're either still playing, or we lose."
Papelbon was back, not as the starter he had attempted to be in spring training, but the closer, the dominant one with the 0.92 ERA last season, the one whose stare underneath the slightly curved brim of his hat was followed immediately by strikeouts and saves. In this case, against Young, it was followed by a 94-mile-per-hour fastball for a swing-and-miss, one just out of the strike zone, and a 96-m.p.h. fastball for a swing-and-miss.
Oh, and then a 97-m.p.h. fastball taken for a strike that found catcher Jason Varitek's glove, leaving Young motionless.
That just made the popup to third base by Mark Teixeira all the more inevitable, getting the Sox out of the inning in front of 28,347 at Rangers Ballpark. Then Papelbon completed the five-out appearance with a dominating ninth inning that featured strikeouts of Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson. And that was all before he said the words that should continue to inspire fear in opposing batters: "Every year, every pitch, every inning I get more and more confident."
"You just can't understand how unbelievable that is," Schilling said. "You just can't. Until you're on the mound, you cannot understand that there aren't very many guys in the history of the game that can do that."
After Pineiro had loaded the bases to open the eighth, on those walks and a bunt infield hit, Francona elected to bring in Lopez, the 12th pitcher on the roster, to face Nelson Cruz (pinch hitting for Frank Catalanotto). Lopez allowed a shot to first base, which glanced off Kevin Youkilis's glove, but the first baseman still managed to get an out at second on the RBI fielder's choice.
So with runners on the corners, in came Papelbon. And on came the sigh of relief from Schilling, who in many ways had given relief to his team in a rebound effort after a shaky Opening Day start.
"It was certainly probably not as smooth as it looked at times," Schilling said. "Still trying to right the ship a little bit. It's been a grind. I'd love to tell you that I'm sitting on top of the world, there's nothing I can't do, but I'm working hard to get mentally back where I need to be to be the pitcher I know I am."
There had been more than a hint of panic after Schilling's uncharacteristically unimpressive start to the season. Against a Kansas City lineup hardly venerated, Schilling lasted just four innings, giving up five runs, and inspiring fans to already laud general manager Theo Epstein for his prescience in not signing the 40-year-old to a contract for next season.
Premature, all of it.
And even though no one doubted David Ortiz's bat would pick up after a slow start to his season, it took all of eight pitches for Ortiz to get not just his first home run of the season, but his second, too. Hitting both on 2-and-1 counts off Rangers starter Vicente Padilla, Ortiz blew past Youkilis -- the only member of the team to homer in the first five games of the season, their fewest since hitting none in that span in 1993 -- to seize control of the team homer lead, a position he is unlikely to relinquish for very long as the season progresses.
Schilling allowed his run on a homer by nemesis Catalanotto, who has the best average against the pitcher in the major leagues (11 for 20, .550), on a changeup in the first inning. He retired his final 10 batters in a row, and 14 of the last 15, striking out six and walking one.
"Coming off the heels of an outing that wasn't very Schilling-esque and in a place that's got pretty good hitters, he gave us what we needed," Francona said.
But even with his rebound performance, Schilling still saved his praise for Papelbon. Not that Papelbon wasn't pleased with his results.
"You know, Texas has been good to me," Papelbon said. "It was my opening as a closer and, you know, hopefully Texas still stays good to me."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.