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ON BASEBALL

Ace is not a finished product

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The last time a Red Sox pitcher was in this situation -- going from starting to closing to starting again -- he ended up being left off the roster for the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.

Now, no one expects a similar fate to befall Curt Schilling -- the generally unflappable Tim Wakefield still seethes at the memory of that 1999 slight by general manager Dan Duquette -- but the Big Schill last night demonstrated that he still needs some work on his riding-to-the-rescue repertoire.

Schilling and his Sox handlers -- manager Terry Francona, GM Theo Epstein, and pitching coach Dave Wallace -- had all warned that there would be some rough edges to his return to the rotation for the first time since April 23. But no doubt everyone had secretly wished for a softer landing than Schilling encountered last night in a 7-4 loss to the Royals, the team with the worst record in baseball.

Pitching against a team that is last in the American League in runs scored, home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, Schilling was cuffed for six runs on nine hits in just five innings. Schilling did not have an inning in which he retired the side in order. The Royals scored three times in the second, once in the third, and twice in the fourth and held a 6-2 lead when Schilling's night ended after throwing 82 pitches.

''I can't search for things and try to figure things out at the expense of this ball club," Schilling said afterward. ''Not now. Not in August. Not with a 2 1/2-game lead. Tonight was a night I certainly had the stuff to win and didn't execute."

The Sox, if they expect Schilling to give them anything in October, have little choice but to allow him some room to search over the next five weeks, an uncomfortable proposition given the stakes: a playoff berth that, as Schilling noted, is hardly a lock, especially if Schilling is not near his best, which is the way Royals manager Buddy Bell described him to reporters.

Does Schilling view this as a work in progress?

''I can't say that," he said. ''No. These all count."

Francona insisted he saw enough from Schilling to come away encouraged.

''I think there are good days ahead," said Francona, who was unhappily contemplating what ranks as about as miserable a night as you can imagine, especially under the circumstances, an all-night flight home to cap a losing road trip (4-6) on the team's longest foray afield this season. ''Physically, this was not a struggle for him."

Problem is, it wasn't much of a struggle for the Royals, either. Schilling gave up a run-scoring single to Denny Hocking, who had not driven in a run in the big leagues this summer. He gave up another RBI single to the No. 9 hitter, Paul Phillips, who began the night batting .150. He hit Emil Brown.

His fastball topped out at 95 miles per hour -- that was the gun reading when he whiffed Matt Stairs to end the first -- and he did strike out five, including the first batter of the game, David DeJesus, who went down on three successive fastballs without offering at one. He also ended his stint with strikeouts of Mark Teahen and Angel Berroa, the former on a 92-m.p.h. fastball, the latter on a 86-m.p.h. splitter.

''The first inning, commandwise, I felt good, maybe my best inning," he said. ''I thought in the fifth inning I'd gotten more comfortable. I didn't throw my first splitter till the ninth hitter of the game. That's not something that happens to me a lot. I think I threw three [splitters] in the first four innings. A lot of it was confidence. I didn't feel comfortable [with the pitch]."

If the first inning was his best, his second ruined his night: five singles brought home three runs, the inning mercifully coming to an end when Johnny Damon uncorked one of his better throws of the summer to cut down Phillips at third base on Terrence Long's two-out base hit.

Schilling said he guessed wrong and threw a curveball to Mike Sweeney to open the third, and Sweeney doubled to the wall and scored on a fly ball and infield out. In the fourth, Hocking drew a walk, Schilling's only pass of the night, and scored when DeJesus grounded an opposite-field double inside the third base bag.

''Some nights you need a ball hit at somebody," Francona said. ''It sounds like we're begging a little bit, but sometimes you need a break. But again, I think good days are ahead."

All the usual trappings of a Schilling start were present -- while some of his teammates watched a movie (''Old School") in the clubhouse before the game, Schilling peered at his laptop, studying video of Royals hitters. He peeked a couple of times at the big screen, and briefly stopped in Francona's office, striding across the clubhouse with his 10-year-old son, Gehrig.

Forty-five minutes before the game, Schilling was in the dugout, a baseball in his hands. Before the first pitch, he took his customary place behind the mound, bowed his head and clutched the crucifix he wears around his neck.

But what Sox fans want to see more than anything -- Schilling retiring batters with the same ease he did in 2004 -- he could not reproduce.

Maybe it will come. Francona said it will be important to see how Schilling rebounds from this start after five weeks of pitching exclusively as a closer, one difficult transition Schilling handled imperfectly but about as well as could be expected. The conventional thinking is that the Sox will not go deep into October without Schilling restored to the top of the rotation, and maybe that will be proven right.

But perhaps it is instructive to consider 1999 again. That Sox team won 94 games even though it had just one pitcher besides 23-game winner Pedro Martinez to win as many as 10 games (Bret Saberhagen). Maybe that proves how indispensable an ace is, something the Sox lack without a healthy Schilling. Or maybe it shows that a good team can overcome more than we give it credit for, including an ace in recovery.

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