ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Inspiration is one thing. Pipe dreams are another.
Sure, Curt Schilling fed off Randy Johnson's greatness in their glory days with the Diamondbacks. They shared MVP honors in the 2001 World Series and for more than three years ranked as one of the most feared 1-2 punches in baseball. But no one in his right mind expected Schilling last night to match his old pal's perfect game Tuesday against the Braves, even with Schilling facing the Devil Rays, the weakest-hitting team in the American League.
Well, maybe no one expected it but Schilling, who strives every outing for perfection.
"You work backward from perfection," he said. "You go out thinking perfect game, no-hitter. If you lose those, you go for a shutout. If you lose that, you go for a win. That's the [Sandy] Koufax theory."
A win did just fine for the Sox as Schilling rationed the Rays only one run on five hits and a walk over seven innings to pace the Sox to a 4-1 triumph before 13,960 at Tropicana Field.
Forget about perfection.
"Every time you go seven innings and give up one run," catcher Jason Varitek said, "you give your team an excellent chance to win."
Along the way, Schilling (5-3) fanned Aubrey Huff in the third inning for the 2,600th strikeout of his career. Only three active pitchers (Roger Clemens, Johnson, and Greg Maddux) have recorded more strikeouts. What's more, only 19 pitchers in history have fanned more than 2,600 batters, and all but three of them (Bert Blyleven, Mickey Lolich, and Frank Tanana) who are eligible for the Hall of Fame have reached Cooperstown.
Schilling has miles to go before he reaches the threshold of the Hall. But he continued to build his resume by posting his 168th career victory, frustrating the Rays at nearly every turn.
"He's done that all his career," said Keith Foulke, who picked up his eighth save and 22d straight since last year. "He goes out there and goes seven strong. In the bullpen, that's what we like to see. He goes out there and just controls the game. It's fun to watch."
With Schilling in charge, Johnny Damon broke a 1-1 deadlock in the third inning with a homer off Tampa Bay starter Rob Bell, newly recalled from Triple A as the Rays tried in vain to win for just the second time in 13 games. Manny Ramirez dinged Bell moments later for a two-run homer for the 4-1 cushion. David Ortiz, who doubled and scored on Ramirez's blast, knocked in Damon for the game's first run with a sacrifice fly in the first inning.
Ramirez has gone 5 for 8 in the first two games of the series to improve his career average at the Trop to .353.
"I'm just lucky that I come here and do good," he said.
"He amazes me on a daily basis, the way he works pitchers and works at-bats," Schilling said. "As far as average and power, he's probably the best I've ever been around."
After Schilling departed, the Sox' defense created a little mess behind Alan Embree in the eighth inning. First, second baseman Mark Bellhorn booted Rocco Baldelli's grounder for an error. Then no one covered the base when Huff bounced to Ortiz at first, bringing the tying run to the plate with two outs.
At that, manager Terry Francona summoned Foulke in a save situation in the eighth inning for only the second time this season and for the first time since April 10. Foulke responded by getting Robert Fick to ground to Ortiz for the final out, then returned to carve up the Rays in order in the ninth. He has not allowed a run in 13 1/3 innings over his last 12 outings.
But Foulke, like Schilling, pursues perfection.
"This is the first time in a long time I haven't felt very good," Foulke said of his performance. "I haven't pitched that much lately, and I felt a little rough."
Foulke said the extra work may have helped.
"The way I feel right now, being able to go out and pitch more than one inning is good for me," he said.
As for Schilling, he wants to find a way to pitch better in the first inning. He allowed a run in the first inning for the third time in his first nine starts, and it marked the sixth time he has not retired the side in order in the first inning.
"If you go out and put three up and three down in the first inning, it really changes the momentum of the game," Schilling said. "I'm the kind of pitcher who thrives on doing that and I haven't been doing it consistently, so it's something that has to be addressed."
The Rays scored when Baldelli whistled a one-out double down the left-field line and motored home on Tino Martinez's two-out, looping double to right-center. But as concerned as Schilling seemed about surrendering the early run, Varitek brushed it off.
"I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about," he said.
Especially since Schilling pitched six scoreless innings afterward, thanks in part to some dandy defense, including shortstop Pokey Reese ranging behind second base to rob Geoff Blum of a hit leading off the seventh. And Foulke was waiting in case of trouble.
"When he comes in there," Reese said, "you pretty much know it's over."