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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Mortality replaces miracles

You want him to be something he can't be right now. Curt Schilling was a god out of Greek mythology last season. He was Paul Bunyan, bigger than life, an indestructible action hero with the flesh wounds -- and bloody sock -- to prove it.

His heroics came at a price, and the burly righthander -- as well as the Red Sox -- are paying it now. Schilling hasn't been right since he gutted his way to a World Series title with a detached tendon in his right ankle. His surreal numbers during that championship run (3-1 with a 3.57 ERA in four postseason starts) are a fond memory of better days, before the surgery, before the premature return in April, before the blase stint as a closer, before his ERA ballooned to 5.98.

At present, Schilling is a mere mortal trying to find his way through the most vexing season of his 15-year career.

Schilling didn't figure in Boston's 7-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays last night. He watched the final two-plus innings unfold from the dugout, where he stewed over a lost opportunity.

''I let them feel like they were in the game the whole way instead of shutting the door, and that's something I'm not accustomed to," Schilling said. ''We're in first place with five days left in the season, and we've got a winnable game with a chance to be in first place all alone with me on the mound. In my mind, that's a lock. But it didn't turn out that way, and it's frustrating."

It was the fifth straight start in which he's pitched into the seventh inning, a significant statistic when you consider the plight of the bullpen, and manager Terry Francona's vow not to tax the young arms of Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Hansen. The skipper needs his starters to eat up innings, and Schilling, who threw 115 pitches, did his part, although Hansen was summoned in the eighth after reliever (and eventual loser) Chad Bradford ran into trouble.

Yet the brilliance that seemed to envelop Schilling for much of 2004 was not in evidence during this critical game, even taking the eight strikeouts into account. Schilling labored long and hard, and it had nothing to do with his ankle.

''That's the problem," he conceded. ''I'm healthy. I can't point to anything other than I'm pitching like crap. I'm not pitching well. It's been a long time."

Schilling was chased by Vernon Wells with one out in the seventh with two men on, after he ran the count to 3 and 2. He reared back and fired in a fastball that registered 95 miles per hour, but, unimpressed, Wells whacked it into center field for an RBI single that tied the game, 5-5. Schilling looked back in disgust, pounded his glove, and kicked the Fenway dirt.

Moments later, he left the mound, having given up five runs and 10 hits, aggravated and unfulfilled -- again.

He will have one final chance to weave some magic Sunday against New York at Fenway. This morning, the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cleveland have identical records. Schilling could well be pitching for his team's postseason life in his final regular-season start.

''I have to be good," Schilling said. ''If it comes down to my final start, it doesn't matter how I feel, or where I am. I have to be there."

Schilling conceded in a candid interview with the Globe's Bob Hohler Monday that this season has been the longest and most difficult of his career, and not all of that has been because of his injuries or mediocre pitching. Schilling said he was stung by an unidentified teammate's comment that he received preferential treatment from the fans this season. The so-called ''free pass" issued to Schilling was apparently a sore spot among some of his locker room mates, particularly in light of how Mark Bellhorn and Keith Foulke were skewered for their ineffectiveness -- or so the clubhouse mole contended.

The lingering question (aside from why Schilling chose the most important week of the season to reveal his bruised psyche) became whether the hunt for the offending rodent would be a distraction to a team that has five days left to determine its future.

Asked for his take between games last night on the Schilling detractor, Johnny Damon insisted, ''Actually, this is the first I've heard of it. I don't know where all these anonymous sources come from, but unfortunately this is Boston, and stuff gets thrown out there all the time.

''Schilling's been hurt. It has taken time for him to get ready. He risked his career to beat the Yankees. For someone to do that is amazing. He could have been done."

(OK, sleuths. Feel free to cross Damon off your list of suspects.)

It should not surprise anyone that the players spent little or no time fretting over a slight crack in their ranks. Schilling is not for everyone. He never has been. Plenty of people have rolled their eyes at his incessant chatter about any and every subject. But just because one of his teammates doesn't plan on inviting him to his holiday party (unless, of course, he agrees to come dressed as Santa Claus), that's hardly cause for a full-fledged investigation into whether it was Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the ballroom.

The bottom line on Schilling is not unlike what it was with the fragile yet mesmerizing righty who wore No. 45 last season. Pedro Martinez was not universally loved by his teammates, either. They found it annoying that he showed up according to his -- not Francona's -- Rolex. They were further rankled when he conducted his workouts during the game, popped into the dugout around the fifth inning for some camera face time, then scooted out (and often home) again. But here's the most important fact to recall: None of them cared as long as he pitched and as long as he won.

The same applies to Schilling. He was the ace all the way to the World Series last season, and if he had been able to regain some semblance of the bloody swagger that immortalized him in these parts (and earned him that free pass that someone finds so irritating), then even the most chatty clubhouse informant would have to keep his grumblings to himself.

The former ace (you have to concede that Tim Wakefield has a firm grasp on that title until further notice) wasn't awful last night. He wasn't terrific. He left his fastball over the plate once too often (see the fourth inning when he tried to throw one away and instead sent it down the middle for Gregg Zaun, who plunked a two-run homer to right field).

Curt Schilling was a hard-working pitcher who battled for naught last night. Get used to it. The days of him wearing Superman's cape are behind him.

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

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