BRADENTON, Fla. -- He's an important piece. The Red Sox aren't going anywhere without Curt Schilling. He's slated to be the Opening Day starter in Arlington, Texas, three weeks from tomorrow and that's why we monitor everything he says and does in his comeback spring training of 2006.
Schilling gave up four hits and four runs in a 10-7 loss to the Pirates in his first ''true" spring start at charming old McKechnie Field yesterday. He did not allow a hit through three frames, but got into trouble after beaning leadoff hitter Chris Duffy to start the fourth.
''Today, really, mind-set-wise, this is the first time I've been healthy in two years," said an enthused Schilling, after throwing 44 of his 58 pitches for strikes. ''Going out there to compete with nothing on your mind but your stuff is a real different feeling for me . . . The linescore didn't end up looking pretty, but I felt like I did a lot of really good things today in a lot of different areas. There's no outstanding questions other than performance when you're done with a game like this. There were a couple of fastballs where I felt like my old self again and that's the thing I've been searching for for a long, long time."
Schilling says he's intent on pitching inside this season. Duffy and Jeff Natale know what he's talking about. Pitching to Sox minor leaguers in Fort Myers last week, Schilling hit Natale with another 0-and-2 pitch. Yesterday, it was Duffy's turn.
In one of those only-Curt moments, Schilling blamed Duffy for getting hit in the head.
''Bottom line is, that ball should not have hit him," said Schilling. ''You've got to be able to get out of the way of that . . . There's just no way that they shouldn't be able to get out of the way of that pitch."
To the untrained ear, this might sound like Dick Cheney claiming his friend should have known better than to get in front of Cheney's shotgun blast. It's hard to remember another pitcher hitting a batter in the head and blaming the batter. But be patient, sports fans. There is logic to Schilling's position. He feels batters have become too comfortable stepping in against him because he works so well on the outer half of the plate. Now he wants to take back the inside half.
''If they're not comfortable in the box, the body will get out of the way," insisted Schilling. ''It's just the way it goes. I'm not trying to hit anybody in the head. Everybody I've ever played with and people I've played against know that I play the game the way it's supposed to be played. If you are uncomfortable in the box, that ball will not hit you . . . If I throw a ball at your head, you're going to get out of the way. Not at the last second, either. And if you're conscious of that when you get into the box, you're going to get out of the way a lot quicker. I promise you there are very few people in the world that have stepped into the box in the last seven or eight years against Pedro Martínez that haven't thought about the fastball in . . . I have good command on the inside corner and I have to start using it."
Schilling's first ''game" was against Boston College when he blanked the Sons of Peter Hughes for four innings in the Red Sox exhibition opener. His second stint on the mound was a three-inning shutout effort at the Sox' minor league complex last Monday. The Orioles were in Fort Myers that day and the always-thinking Schilling didn't want to give away any trade secrets that Baltimore might use during the regular season. So while the Sox and Orioles got loose at City of Palms Park, Schilling pitched to a bunch of kids at the far end of Edison Road with Sox coach/scout Dick Berardino umpiring from behind the mound. That's when he rung Natale's bell.
Finally facing big league hitters (yes, the Pirates still count), Schilling looked strong and loose yesterday. Throwing to Josh Bard (''I like him a lot," said Schilling. ''He works hard and he's focused on what he's doing behind the plate when he's on the bench and that's important to me.") Schilling fanned Duffy with an offspeed pitch to start the first. Shortstop Jack Wilson was next and he took a called third strike on the inside half of the plate. Sean Casey lined hard to right to complete the rocking chair inning.
Schilling batted in the top of the second and popped to second after working the count to 3 and 1.
Pittsburgh's cleanup man, Craig Wilson, popped to first on a 1-and-2 pitch to start the bottom of the second. Then Jeromy Burnitz hit a second-pitch grounder that shot past J.T. Snow for a rare error by the new Boston first baseman. No problem. Joe Randa followed with a room-service, double-play grounder to third base, and Schilling was back in the dugout before you could say, ''Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."
José Castíllo flied to right to lead off the third, then Humberto Cota hit a rocket that was backhanded by Sox third baseman Tony Graffanino. Schilling blew away Pirates pitcher Ryan Vogelsong on three pitches. Schilling threw only 27 pitches in those first three innings, nine in each frame.
He beaned Duffy to start the fourth. It was a loud and frightening moment. Duffy stayed on his feet, but the force of the pitch knocked the helmet off his head. The Pirates center fielder came out of the game. Wilson followed with a hard single to right, then Casey drove home the first run with a hard single to right.
Wilson struck out on an offspeed pitch, but Burnitz worked Schilling to a full count, fouled off a pitch, then grounded a double down the first base line to make it 2-0 and bring pitching coach Al Nipper out of the dugout. Randa scored Casey with a towering sacrifice fly to the warning track in center and Castíllo made it 4-0, singling on an 0-and-1 pitch. Cota, the eighth batter of the inning, struck out on a ball in the dirt, and that was the end of the day for big Curt.
And it was a good day for the big guy. Not a very good day for Chris Duffy, but he'll learn to get his head out of the way next time. The important thing is that Curt feels healthy and strong.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.