He went all but sleepless six nights earlier, consumed by hours of self-loathing. In Curt Schilling's eyes, he had singlehandedly squandered a game the Red Sox should have won by allowing Toronto's Chris Gomez to launch a game-breaking grand slam in a jarring 7-3 loss at SkyDome. He had relived the agony --and microanalyzed the moment -- on the bus from SkyDome to the Toronto airport, on the late-night flight to New York, and in the early-morning solitude of his Manhattan hotel room. The long night turned into a cruel dawn in Gotham.
But Schilling's pillow last night almost certainly felt more comfortable. In a resounding return from his personal purgatory, he thoroughly dominated the Devil Rays for 7 1/3 innings to propel the Sox to a 6-0 victory before 35,120 in the opener of a three-game, two-day homestand at Fenway Park. Schilling scattered five hits, walked none, and struck out eight to help lift the division-leading Sox to their fourth straight victory and orchestrate his redemption.
"All week he looked more than ready to go," manager Terry Francona said. "You could see he was disappointed the way the last game ended and he was going to atone for that tonight."
Schilling, who received all the support he needed when one mighty swing of Jason Varitek's maple bat produced a two-run homer, improved to 3-1 with a 3.31 ERA and made certain he suffered no calamity like he did in Toronto.
"We should have been 6-0 on that road trip," Schilling said. "I am not taking anything away from the Blue Jays, but that game was there for us to win. I don't do that very often, at least I think I don't. Obviously, going into New York and playing the way we played took a lot of the sting out of that. But on a personal level, I went out there tonight and that was still on my mind."
Varitek, Schilling's prized catcher, walloped his two-run shot off Tampa Bay starter Paul Abbott in the fourth inning before he knocked in another run with a bases-loaded single in the seventh. Mark Bellhorn (2 for 2 with a pair of walks) followed Varitek in the seventh with a two-run single, and Bill Mueller completed the scoring by doubling home Johnny Damon in the eighth.
After batting only .234 on their 5-1 road swing through Toronto and the Bronx, the Sox collected 12 hits, including five for extra bases, against Abbott and two relievers.
"Having a guy like Curt Schilling out there," Damon said, "makes everything seem a lot easier."
But it was hardly a cakewalk as Abbott waged a stiff challenge until the seventh. Abbott has baffled the Sox through the years, as he showed with his career record entering the game (2-1, 1.88 ERA in eight appearances). The last time he faced the Sox at Fenway (Sept. 3, 2000), he one-hit them over 7 2/3 innings. And he took a run at matching Schilling last night as he spotted the Sox only the two runs until they wore him down in the seventh.
"Things were just churning through the mud until Curt really established himself," Varitek said. "Then you kind of realized it was going to be a pretty close game."
Once Schilling weathered some early trials, including taking a searing shot off his right foot by Aubrey Huff in the first inning, he grew increasingly formidable. He fanned Toby Hall with a 97-mile-per-hour heater to end the seventh and got Rey Sanchez to fly out before he yielded to Alan Embree. From there, the Sox' bullpen was perfect, as Embree finished the eighth and Lenny DiNardo did the honors in the ninth, extending the relief crew's streak of scoreless innings to 26 1/3.
"Our bullpen is the reason we are where we are," Schilling said. "I can't imagine a lot of teams out there want to get to our bullpen."
In Embree's view, Schilling also was the last starter the Rays may have wanted to face. Embree had no doubt Schilling wanted to make a statement based on the finish in Toronto.
"He's that kind of pitcher," Embree said. "He's that determined. He's a perfectionist. He doesn't like to lose. He likes to prove everyone wrong."
The Rays, who entered the game having scored fewer runs (67) than any team in the American League, managed to advance a runner to third base in the first inning, Schilling's roughest of the night. They did so on a pair of infield grounders, one to shortstop by Rocco Baldelli, the other Huff's shot that caromed into right field off Schilling's right foot.
"My heart was in my throat," Francona said. "From where I was sitting, it looked like it got him square."
It did, but Schilling pitched through the discomfort. With runners at the corners and one out, he retired Robert Fick on a pop to third and fanned Tino Martinez on a 3-2 splitter.
"That was key," Varitek said, "getting out of that first inning."
It was Tampa Bay's last best chance. The Rays otherwise put runners on base thanks only to Hall's two-out, opposite-field single in the second inning, Julio Lugo's two-out high hopper over third base for a double in the fourth inning, and Lugo's one-out single to center in the seventh. And Schilling stopped all the runners cold once they reached base.
It was a rough introduction for Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella, who never had seen Schilling pitch in person. Piniella, almost certainly capturing the spirit of everyone else who witnessed Schilling's performance, described it in a word: "Impressive."