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JACKIE MACMULLAN

New closer gets off to a bad start

At precisely 3:50 yesterday afternoon, Curt Schilling strode into Fenway Park as a reliever. He had been gone 69 games, struggling to regain his form as a dominant starter after right ankle surgery, and since that had not occurred to the liking of the pitcher, his manager, or his front office, Schilling elected to suit up for the Yankees series as a bullpen ace.

He hoped.

Nearly seven hours later, Schilling retreated to the Red Sox clubhouse having surrendered a monstrous two-run shot to Alex Rodriguez in the ninth. A-Rod, the Yankees third baseman whom Schilling dismissed as ''bush league" last winter following Boston's World Series triumph, deposited a listless splitter into the bleachers, just to the right of the flag pole. Teammate Gary Sheffield was aboard for the ride, having ripped another Schilling splitter moments before off the Wall.

''I threw two, as bad splits as I can throw," lamented Schilling in his postgame news conference. ''I felt my strength coming in was I could use whatever pitch I needed in certain situations."

Thus, what could have been another chapter in Schilling's heroic storybook in Boston -- shutting down the dreaded Yankees in the ninth of a 6-6 game -- disintegrated into a frustrating 8-6 loss tagged onto his already woeful 2005 statistics.

Sox manager Terry Francona was understandably protective of his pitcher in the aftermath of last night's loss. He reminded anyone who asked this was only the beginning of an experiment he expects will be successful in time.

''As long as he pitches with health, we'll get the guy we're looking for," said Francona.

The appearance of Schilling on the mound as the Sox' closer, which happened at precisely 10:04 p.m., was met with some curiosity by the guys wearing pinstripes across the field.

''It was weird," said closer Mariano Rivera, who struck out the side in the ninth to convert his 21st consecutive save opportunity.

Schilling's job description has changed dramatically. Instead of trying to flummox batters through seven or eight innings, which he has done for the past 14 years, Schilling will be asked to mow 'em down in order by throwing 15 to 20 pitches at the most. It is, at the very least, awkward (Schilling's word); at the most, it is a daunting transition that could backfire if Schilling winds up with arm trouble to accompany his balky ankle.

''You've got to be careful," warned Rivera, before Schilling's appearance. ''You have to make sure you don't damage yourself by asking your arm to do too much."

After he tossed lightly in the outfield before the game, Schilling was asked if he was a little nervous. ''I'm a lot nervous," he replied, sporting facial hair the color of Crayola's burnt sienna. ''The exciting part comes when you get to do your job."

Pitching coach Dave Wallace hinted last night at some built-in parameters for Schilling -- including avoiding asking him to come to the rescue in the middle of an inning.

''We want to get him a clean inning," Wallace said. ''We'd like to do that for a while. But that's in an ideal world. We'll see."

The perfect scenario presented itself after Francona called upon relievers Mike Myers, Alan Embree, and Mike Timlin to stretch the game to the ninth. When Schilling opened the bullpen door and strode from the outfield to the mound, flashbulbs lit up the park like a swarm of fireflies. The capacity crowd jumped to their feet in anticipation of greatness.

Schilling ran the count on Sheffield to 2 and 2 before the right fielder blasted a double off the Wall. The patrons slumped down into their seats. Then A-Rod jumped on the first pitch to add to Schilling's misery.

''I certainly felt like I was going to have more out there tonight than I did," Schilling said. ''But when I'm not going out there with my best stuff, I still need to make pitches. Early on with the Sheff at-bat, I overthrew the ball a little bit trying to get it there.

''If you are doing it right, the first thing you do is tell yourself to relax and make a pitch instead of trying to throw the ball. And I didn't do that."

On the one hand, you figure this job was made for Schilling, who thrives when confidence, swagger, and resiliency are the necessary ingredients to succeed. On the other, you worry about the rhythm of a closer and the uncertainty of his participation. There is no exact science to the job, only situations that change inning to inning, and many times, pitch to pitch. Schilling dismissed the significance of how he warmed up, adding, ''That whole topic was created by other people."

''I think [Schilling] is capable of doing it," said Rivera. ''But he'll have to learn how to warm up. It's hard. You think you're going in, and you warm up, but then they don't need you, so you've got to cool down again. Then they call you up again, and you may or may not go in, so you've got to stay alert.

''And, after all that, you've got to come back the next day, and the next day, and the next day."

With Boston's bullpen a leaky lot (they began the second half of the season 28th out of 30 in relief effectiveness), any kind of presence Schilling offers will be helpful. And yet, with an eye toward the bigger picture, you have to wonder how this relief stint impacts his long-term goal, which is to return to the starting rotation.

''We have our ways," Schilling said, without elaborating. ''We've got some methods to get me to progress."

It might be too much to ask for Schilling to appear on three or four consecutive nights as a reliever, although the big righty said he was fresh and prepared to pitch again tonight. Schilling's new role is a work in progress, and, if you take general manager Theo Epstein at his word, a short-term solution to a problem that will likely be addressed either with the return of a healthy Keith Foulke or a trade for an established reliever.

In the meantime, the former starting ace is now a ''back-end guy" who, according to Schilling, relies on ''three, four, five other guys to do their job well, or you don't get to do your [job]."

''It's a big challenge," Schilling acknowledged. ''But I don't think it's beyond my capabilities."

You love it when your closer talks that way. You want the guy who needs to seal the deal to believe he can do it -- again and again and again.

''The mental part for him, that will be easy," predicted Rivera. ''It's all about forgetting what you did the day before, whether it was a good day or a bad day. Because the next day, no matter what, you got to go out there and do it again."

At precisely 10:20, Schilling vowed to put this one behind him.

''It's one night," Schilling said. ''I got beat by two of the game's best hitters. You certainly don't want to forget about it, you certainly can't make more out of it than it's a game we lost and should have won, and I'm the reason we didn't."

Schilling fully hopes and expects to take the mound again tonight against the Yankees, preferably in a closer situation. In order to accomplish that, he said, he will erase last night's failure from his archives.

''It's the hardest part of this job," said Rivera in the visitors' clubhouse after the game. ''It all depends on him. It's up to him whether he can forget about it."

When he left the ballpark at precisely 10:40, Curt Schilling walked away with the swagger of a pitcher who believes he can do anything. His faithful fans, who dutifully waited for a glimpse of him as he drove into the night, held their collective breath and hoped he was right.

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

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