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Ace's gritty performance won't soon be forgotten

NEW YORK -- Sixteen hours later, it seemed even more remarkable than when it was actually unfolding. Curt Schilling's gritty performance in Tuesday's 4-2 win in Game 6 over the Yankees, pitching with a dislocated tendon that was sutured to his skin, is already being spoken in the same breath as some of the historic postseason feats involving injured stars. It's Willis Reed, Kirk Gibson, and Schilling, whose bloodied, but unbowed right ankle has given a whole new meaning to the term Red Sox.

"I'm convinced that 10 years from now people are going to say Willis Reed pulled a Curt Schilling, instead of the other way around," declared Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "With all due respect to Willis Reed, he only had two baskets that day [in May 1970]. Curt was a dominant pitcher for six innings."

Schilling's ability to go deep into the game was critical, with Boston's overworked bullpen logging an ungodly number of innings through the first five games. He was gassed by the time he left with a 4-1 lead, his only miscue a home run ball to Bernie Williams in the seventh. His final line: seven innings, four hits, one run, no walks, four strikeouts.

Last night, just 1 1/2 hours before game time, Schilling threw lightly in the outfield under the watchful eye of assistant trainer Chris Correnti. Schilling was not testing his ankle for potential future World Series endeavors; he was trying to make a case for himself as an available weapon last night, even if it was to pitch to only one or two batters. Schilling lobbied both manager Terry Francona and Epstein to consider him, but his entreaties fell on deaf ears.

"There's no game tomorrow," said Schilling. "It's all about right now. It can be done. I could do it."

Epstein said while he admired Schilling's resolve, he was the only pitcher that had been declared unavailable by his coaching staff last night. Schilling, after all, threw 99 pitches Tuesday night, and was showing signs of fatigue as early as the fourth inning.

"There were times his velocity was wavering," Francona said. "It was a little inconsistent, but it seemed like every time he started to get a little worrisome, he would pump it back up to 94 [miles per hour] and hit his spots pretty good. Some people said they were surprised he came out after the seventh, but we were actually keeping an eye on him from the fourth in case he was starting not to feel great."

As more details continued to come out yesterday, the medical lengths to which Schilling went to be able to pitch made his performance even more remarkable. Even so, as he took the mound Tuesday night and began scraping the dirt to dig out a comfort zone, the Boston front office collectively held its breath.

"With the first pitch, I was looking for the soundness of his delivery," Epstein said. "When he showed that he had good mechanics, it look one lump out of my throat. The other lump was taken out when I watched our guys cover first base for him. That was a big concern for us."

Was Boston's GM surprised the Yankees didn't attempt to drop a couple of bunts on Schilling and force him to make some plays that would require mobility?

"Mildly," Epstein admitted, "but the Yankees are a walk-and-home-run offense, and I think [Yankees manager] Joe [Torre] felt that he didn't want to get out of his regular offense."

Torre was asked about his team's unwillingness to bunt, and his answer revealed some skepticism on the part of his team about the extent of Schilling's ailment.

"[The bunting] is an individual choice," Torre said last night. "And we are not necessarily of a mind to believe that there's a lot wrong with him. It's not that we're saying that he wasn't telling the truth [about being hurt], but we have to deal with him, the pitcher we know, instead of seeing that there's something drastically wrong with him physically.

"We don't want to take away from ourselves. I hate to think, `A-Rod, here, drop one down so you don't hit one out of the ballpark.' I'd rather take my chances at him swinging the bat."

In truth, the Yankees were already sick of hearing about the "courageous" and "heroic" Schilling. As his legendary status grew, the frequency with which the New York players rolled their eyes also increased proportionately.

Schilling is a student of baseball, but he was in no mood yesterday to put his performance in any kind of historical context. Gibson? Reed? He scoffed at it all.

"You know, that's all nice and well and good, but we need another win, or it won't mean much of anything," Schilling said.

But that's where Schilling is mistaken. Bostonians have long memories (just ask Bill Buckner), and when someone straps on his shoes and submits a gutty performance, he will be remembered forever, even if it isn't during a year in which the ultimate prize is won. Consider Carlton Fisk's dramatic home run in the 1975 World Series. No rings were handed out to Sox players that year, either, but Fisk's heroics are eternally etched into the minds of Sox fans.

Schilling's masterpiece seems to have secured a place in Boston's scrapbook of tremendous feats, as well. Last night's Game 7 win makes sure it will remain there.

"I thought it was a pretty amazing performance when I saw it happen, and I still do," Francona said.

Only time will tell where Schilling's outing will fall in the all-time great moments of sports. Last night, he didn't much care. Schilling wanted the ball once more, only this time no special shoes, sutures, or splints were going to get him his wish.

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