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BOB RYAN

Schilling never had it right from the start

NEW YORK -- No one could have raised the bar higher than Curt Schilling did himself.

"Expectations are something I look forward to," Schilling said the day before his heralded start against the Evil Empire he had vowed to overthrow. "I signed to be in this situation."

As the days, weeks, and months went by, the big righthander talked incessantly about his mission, which had nothing to do with 20-win seasons or Cy Young Awards. Everything, he told us, was geared toward October. That's when games matter. October. October was going to be his month.

Big talk is exciting. Big talk is exhilarating. Big talk is gutsy. Big talk is part of Curt Schilling's M.O., and throughout his career he has been able to back up the big talk.

But Schilling is still a mortal man, and he is also a physically impaired one. The man who entered last night's Game 1 of the American League Championship Series with a career postseason ERA of 1.74 in 12 starts, and had given up nine earned runs in his last nine postseason starts, gave up six earned runs in career start No. 13. He did not look like one of the great money pitchers of all-time. He looked like a man with a shot-up ankle trying to fool one of the best lineups in baseball. The Red Sox were beaten, 10-7, and Curt Schilling was the losing pitcher.

"He just didn't look right," sighed manager Terry Francona. "I was trying to give him every opportunity, because his heart is so big, and he has the ability to reach back."

Not last night. The guy who went to the mound looked like Curt Schilling. He even wore his No. 38. But this was not the real Curt Schilling. "They hit me when the bell rung, and I couldn't respond," he said.

It's exactly what anyone who has been following the week's news thinks it was. His right ankle is not right. It's as simple as that. He could not drive properly off his back foot, leading to problems with his velocity and command. A professional team such as the New York Yankees immediately knew what they were dealing with.

"He had his way with us last time in Boston," said New York manager Joe Torre. "But right from the first batter, I thought we were going to be OK."

It started off with what he termed one of the worst bullpen sessions he's ever had, and it never really got better. "I just couldn't make it work, armwise," he explained. "I just couldn't get anything on the ball. It was not coming out of my hand right."

Schilling retired the first two men in the first, but even then there were disturbing signs that he was not exactly at the top of his game, for Derek Jeter had taken his 0-and-2 pitch to deep right and Alex Rodriguez had run the count to 3-and-2 before flying out to Trot Nixon in reasonably deep right.

When he is truly himself, Schilling does not go around issuing three-ball counts to two of the first three men he faces. But he went to 3-and-1 on Gary Sheffield, which is never a good idea. Sheffield drilled a double into the corner in left and the big ballpark was alive. That brought up Hideki Matsui, who seems to be getting better by the week. The elegant Japanese left fielder shot an 0-and-2 pitch into left-center. A better outfielder than Manny Ramirez would have made sure the ball did not go any farther, but the ball rolled under Ramirez's glove, turning an RBI single into a double and making Bernie Williams's subsequent single an RBI affair.

Schilling appeared to settle down in the second, retiring the side on nine pitches. But the third was a certified Red Sox/Schilling disaster.

Jeter -- big surprise, huh? -- started it with a sharp single to center. A-Rod reached safely on an infield hit to deep short (Orlando Cabrera is very good, but you couldn't help thinking that the October Jeter makes the play). Sheffield walked on a 3-and-2 pitch, loading the bases with no one out and bringing the dangerous Matsui to the plate.

He jumped on the first pitch, ripping a ball to the base of the wall in right. Two runs scored easily, and Sheffield came home with the third when the carom eluded the normally reliable Nixon. The predictable cries of "Who's your daddy?" began ringing out in the right-center-field bleachers.

So there it was. Three innings. Six hits. Six earned runs. Fifty-eight pitches, many of them ugly. Far from silencing 56,135 people, as he had talked about doing the day before, he had energized them. When Curtis Leskanic came out for the fourth there was a new, joyous cry: "Where's Curt Schilling?"

He was in the dugout, contemplating the shortest postseason outing of his illustrious career.

"It's incredibly disappointing," he said. "It's only one game, but they were better than me tonight -- a lot better than me tonight."

Now what? He is scheduled to start Sunday evening's Game 5, but he wouldn't even commit to that. The man who was going to be The Difference this time does not really know what his immediate pitching future will be.

"If I can't go out there with something better than I had tonight, I'm not going back out there," he declared. "It's not about me. It's about winning a world's championship, and I've got to be better than this."

OK, Pedro. Looks like it's up to you.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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