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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Schilling again is the attraction

This one felt like it should have counted for more. The brilliant blue sky, the barrage of first-inning hits off New York starter Kevin Brown, and the masterful performance by Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling seemed wasted somehow. The regular-season home finale, a dominating win against a most hated rival, should have carried more weight.

Funny how things work. Most times, an 11-4 hammering of the Yankees would be a cause for wild celebration. The fact that Boston locked up the season series, 11-8, against its hated rival normally would elicit a second printing of "Reverse the Curse" bumper stickers. Yet the stated goal before this weekend began was to close the gap in the hunt for the division title, and only a sweep would have best accomplished that.

Thus, fans departed Fenway Park with a parting gift of taking two out of three from those exasperating men from the Bronx, allowing the locals to make up only one game in their now near-Quixotic quest to finish atop the American League East.

There were even mild regrets within Schilling's exhilarating performance. Had Schilling stuck out his glove one millisecond sooner in the fourth inning, when Yankees catcher Jorge Posada drilled a single up the middle, we might have been talking about a no-hitter this morning.

"I should have caught it," Schilling lamented. "I just didn't react to it well."

It was a bizarre outing, to be sure. Schilling mowed down the first 10 batters he faced before he hiccuped in the fourth, with his team in front, 7-0. It began with Derek Jeter's sharp liner down the first-base line that Doug Mientkiewicz deftly stabbed. (Think he'll come in handy in the postseason?) Schilling then added a smudge to his burgeoning masterpiece by doing the inexplicable: walking Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui, on four pitches each.

"I don't know [what that was]," Schilling said. "I would love to sit here and tell you that [umpire Jim Wolf] was horrible behind the plate and was squeezing me, but I threw 12 straight balls, and I thought only one of them was a strike."

Catcher Jason Varitek did not offer alternate strategies throughout this brief lapse -- "It was like Schill had amnesia," offered Sox manager Terry Francona -- because mechanically there was nothing to correct.

"He was just a touch missing," Varitek said. "That happens sometimes. They were a good, patient team. They were smart enough to stay off a lot of pitches.

"All it takes is one pitch to get back on track. The first splitter he threw for a strike with the bases loaded got him right back."

The victim of that splitter was Bernie Williams, who looked completely overmatched on the next two pitches, and struck out swinging on three pitches. That brought up Posada. He jumped on the first pitch and whacked it past the pitcher, just inches from Schilling's outstretched glove.

Just like that, the no-hitter, the shutout, and any hopes of a complete game went kaput. Two runs came across, and after Schilling coaxed John Olerud into a harmless grounder to end the inning, he spiked the ball in frustration.

"The inning never should have gotten to that point," he said. "With that offense and that team, you don't ever want them to think they're in the game when your offense puts them away that early. There's just no excuse for that."

This was likely Schilling's last meaningful outing before the playoffs. He should be the man Francona gives the ball to for Game 1 of the postseason.

He is 21-6, and yesterday he was the Yankees' daddy, spanking them hard and sending them home without supper.

That in itself should be worth two W's.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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