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BOB RYAN

Magnificent Schilling gave them a strong foothold

NEW YORK -- Whaddya think? Let him close tonight? He threw only 99 pitches and he was still pumping high-octane gas at the end. Curt Schilling might be good for a batter or two in a pinch tonight.

Tonight. How's that sound? Tonight. There's going to be some baseball played in Yankee Stadium tonight.

Here's one thing we know: Tonight won't be just any night.

Thanks to Schilling, the Red Sox already have made themselves a little history. With their 4-2 victory over the Yankees last night, they have done what 25 previous teams placed in an 0-3 series coffin never had done. They have won three straight. A game whose very concept was a total abstract last Saturday night is now going to be played. The Yankees and Red Sox have won three games apiece in the American League Championship Series. For the second year in a row, the AL champion will be decided at Yankee Stadium, and for the winner there will be no morning star, only a long night of celebration.

Late last week, who among us actually believed we'd see Schilling on the mound a second time in this series? The interview given by team medical director Dr. William Morgan last Wednesday sounded dire indeed. Schilling had a "subluxation," or a tear, in one of the tendons in his right ankle. If it were you or me, Morgan said, we'd be having surgery tomorrow.

I know I walked out of there thinking, "Come on, who's kidding whom? This guy is finished for this year."

But there he was last night, standing on the same Yankee Stadium mound that had been the site of such enormous disappointment a week ago Tuesday. When we weren't looking, he must have sneaked in a side trip to Lourdes. Curt Schilling, who had talked so much all season about his desire to pitch the biggest games of the season, was being given a chance at redemption.

Schilling didn't just talk the talk or even walk the walk. He sprinted the Marathon. He gave the Red Sox seven innings of four-hit baseball, handing over a 4-1 lead to Bronson Arroyo, the set-up man for Keith Foulke on this occasion.

"I don't think it's been overdone, the whole ankle thing," said Gabe Kapler. "It's incredibly courageous what he did and he should be commended. We are so proud of him tonight. We needed him. We could not have won this game if he had not done what he did tonight."

So what happened? Schilling said he turned to a higher power. Alluding to the fact that he had become a Christian seven years ago, he said, "I tried to be as tough as I could, and I did it my way and you saw what happened. I prayed and prayed, not to win, but for the strength to be able to compete."

Save for one seventh-inning pitch to Bernie Williams, Schilling wasn't just good, or even great. He was transcendent. Pitching with a normal right shoe (after all that talk about the special high-top) -- but following a minor surgical procedure to help keep the tendon in place -- he came at the Yankees with his A material, breezing through the first six innings while allowing three hits and walking none. Did I say walk? You need four balls to do that, and it took the Yankees 19 batters (Derek Jeter in the sixth) before someone could wangle a three-ball count, let alone four.

His only problem inning was the fourth, when back-to-back singles by Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield put men on first and second with none out, the Yankees trailing by a 4-0 score, thanks to a four-run Sox top half. But Hideki Matsui fouled out to Kevin Millar on the first pitch for a huge out. Schilling then retired both Williams and Jorge Posada on rollers to first, and that was that.

The Williams thing? Start with the idea that Bernie is already the all-time postseason home run leader, and is always a dangerous man in these circumstances. He turned on a 3-and-1 pitch and deposited it into the upper deck, fair by a foot or two. But just to prove he had plenty left in the tank, Schilling came right back to get Posada on a weak popup and Ruben Sierra on one of his three swinging strikeouts.

He left the game after that, having thrown the most important 99 pitches of his Red Sox career. He finished the seventh so strongly you had to ask whether the skipper had given any thought to bringing him back for an eighth.

"When you see him congratulate the umpire and say `Good job,' " after the seventh," quipped Terry Francona, "then you know he's not coming back out there."

Schilling had justified all the hype, much of it self-generated. For at no point in the past year has it been necessary for anyone to put words in Schilling's mouth. He is quite adept at articulating his thoughts, and the idea he has talked about incessantly is that of him being a difference-maker. He immersed himself in Red Sox (and Yankee) lore. He made it clear that he, you know, got it, that he understands the fans and the media and the history of the past 86 years.

But all that was so much rhetoric after Game 1, when he was physically unable to pitch the way he needed to. He had -- and there is no other way to put it -- failed. Had he not been able to pitch any more, it would have been a long, long winter.

Now he can start thinking about a start in the World Series. All he needs for that to materialize is the right outcome tonight. Tonight. Wow. There's going to be a game in the Bronx tonight. Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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