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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Team has sock, Schilling doesn't

He's like Maverick after Goose died in ''Top Gun." He's like Puff the Magic Dragon after Jackie Paper came no more. He's like Howard Dean after The Scream, like Cam Neely after Ulf Samuelsson's cheap shot.

Maybe it's too much to ask after what he did last year, but Curt Schilling is just not the same bloody pitcher he was last October -- and in all the months leading up to the postseason drama of 2004. It's a chilling prospect with the Yankees charging from behind, and Sept. 1 in the on-deck circle. Schilling even got booed (briefly) last night. Who'd believe it?

Naturally, the Red Sox still think Schilling will turn it around, and they see many positive things even when he gives up nine hits and five runs in six innings against the Devil Rays. They'll say they are happy he was able to throw 97 pitches and they can envision a return to full form by the time it counts.

''Yes, I was encouraged," manager Terry Francona said of Schilling, after watching his team's pulsating 7-6 win in the bottom of the ninth. ''Not with the one inning" -- Schilling gave up four runs in the second -- ''but the rest of it, I was encouraged."

Schilling said, ''I can't go out and pitch the way I did those first two innings. There's just no excuse. I hung four splitters in the first two innings and every one ended up with green paint on it.

''I've got two options: I can quit or get better. I'm going to get better. I'm going to be the guy they count on to throw seven, eight, nine innings every fifth day. And it's going to be sooner rather than later."

Still, we wonder. In the wake of last night's performance, his second start since April, Schilling is 5-6 and his ERA is 6.96. He has given up a whopping 72 hits in just 53 innings. For Schilling, this has the look of a lost season, the final payment for what he put his body through last fall.

The final line score wasn't impressive, but Schilling settled down after giving up five runs and seven hits in two innings against the D-Rays. He cruised through his final four frames, allowing only two singles, a walk, and zero runs.

This was Schilling's second start since the Great Bullpen Experiment. Never wanting to bring attention to himself, Schill took the hill with his freshly-dyed, neon-blond hair glowing under his cap. Lou Piniella probably could have urged plate umpire Ed Montague to make Schilling shave the ultra-bright locks -- hitters could claim to be blinded by the light.

Fenway was unsually flat at the outset.

Maybe it was the long day of intermittent rain, or maybe folks were just nervous about Schill, but the park was quiet and 30 percent empty when Julio Lugo took the first pitch for a strike at 7:06 p.m.

Lugo lined Schilling's second pitch into left for a double, took third on a bunt, and scored on a single up the middle by Jorge Cantu. Six pitches into his first home start since Patriots Day, Schilling trailed, 1-0.

He finished the inning strong, getting Aubrey Huff and Jonny Gomes, both swinging and missing at 93-mile-per-hour fastballs.

In the bottom of the first, Scott Kazmir hit Tony Graffanino with his first pitch and Montague warned both dugouts. Not good for Big Curt. Schilling lost the innermost part of the plate for the duration of the night.

The Big Schill was underwhelming in the second, giving up five hits and four more runs. Alex Gonzalez and Toby Hall hit back-to-back shots off the wall to make it 2-0.

Then Lugo crushed a drive to straightaway center. Johnny Damon probably would have caught it, but Gabe Kapler was in center and the ball landed behind him for a triple. When Carl Crawford followed with a hard double off the Wall, it was 4-0, and fans were booing.

Booing Schill? How soon they forget. Sheer blasphemy. Pitching coach Dave Wallace came out for a chat.

With Wallace safe in the dugout (there weren't many other safe spots in the second inning), Cantu drove a ball into the gap in right-center and it was 5-0. In those first two innings, Schilling gave up five extra-base hits, plus a Wall-ball single.

''Ridiculous," Schilling said when asked about the second. ''I was putting the ball in the middle of the plate.

''After the second inning, I was as down as I've been in a long, long time. Emotionally frustrated. I was at a crossroads where I could continue to beat myself down or make adjustments."

He made adjustments. He got the side in order in the third, then got out of the fourth after giving up a pair of two-out singles. In the fifth, he painted the outside corner and caught Huff looking at a 92 m.p.h. fastball. Gomes and Travis Lee both flied to the warning track. Schilling was at 80 pitches after five and the Sox were back in the ballgame, trailing, 5-4.

Schilling surrendered his only walk of the night to Gonzalez leading off the sixth. He got the next three batters, retiring Lugo on an easy fly to right on his final pitch of the night. Sixty-eight of his 97 pitches were strikes.

So there. Nothing definitive. Again. But Schilling and the Sox are running out of time. He's pitched 53 innings all year and he has six starts left.

Can they win the World Series this year?

''Not if we continue to pitch this way, no," answered Schilling.

Time to quit or get better. Schilling is planning on the latter.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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