boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
JACKIE MACMULLAN

Credit the Sox ace with a four-bagger

Curt Schilling (right), who improved to 4-0, left Ty Wigginton looking for answers at the end of the fourth inning.
Curt Schilling (right), who improved to 4-0, left Ty Wigginton looking for answers at the end of the fourth inning. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

He knew there were doubters, and it delighted him.

That's how Curt Schilling's busy mind works. Tell him he might be too old, or damaged goods, and he'll chortle his way to the best start of his professional career -- just to show you.

Here's a little known Curt fact for you: The big guy had never won his first four starts to begin the season -- until last night.

On a crystal-clear evening when his command was a little off, but his teammates' bats were dead on, Schilling sat back and cruised to a 9-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and in the process dropped his already minuscule ERA to 1.61.

Schilling isn't unhittable, but he sure hasn't been too interested in letting teams score.

''I think he's enjoying the fact he's not trying to keep his ankle together with splints and all sorts of other contraptions," offered his manager, Terry Francona.

Schilling's dominance in the infancy of this season has been truly stunning. While it's too early to award him a 20-win season, a Cy Young, or a guest spot on ''Meet the Press," you can be sure baseball boss Theo Epstein has erased his question mark and penciled in a giant exclamation next to his righthander's name.

Red Sox Nation held its breath in hopes its World Series hero of two seasons ago would find a way to regain his form and his swagger. Nobody was demanding a repeat of 2004, when Schilling led the majors with 21 wins, but the success of this team hinged on how much its older starters had left in their tank, and it was imperative that Curt from Medfield contributed.

There were a number of question marks looming as the 2006 Boston Red Sox migrated north: whom the closer would be, whom the clubhouse clown would be, whether Josh Beckett would develop blisters, whether Matt Clement would develop the yips. There were concerns about the lack of power in the lineup, and concerns about the struggle for power in the front office.

Yet none of those, in my mind, was bigger than Schilling and his viability as a front-line starter.

We all had reasons to wonder if the big guy's best days were behind him. His postseason heroics in 2004 left him with a bloodied sock, a permanent place in Red Sox lore, and an ankle that had been stapled more than a second-grader's book report.

Everything was a struggle last season following ankle surgery to repair his World Series wounds. Schilling began the year on the disabled list, came back too soon, went back on the DL at the end of April, then returned just before Bastille Day as one of the Brothers in Arms out of the bullpen. The results were mixed. He finished the year wearing his starter's cap, but it simply didn't fit as snugly as it had the year before.

He was 3-3 with a 5.08 ERA in his final eight starts, and sat helplessly in wait while his teammates were swept in the Division Series against Chicago.

Nobody was sure what to make of Schilling's status. Was the damage to his ankle so extensive that he would never be able to pitch as effectively again? Or was it simple mathematics? Schilling turned 39 Nov. 14. Maybe he was just too old to be an ace anymore. He walked like one and talked like one, but maybe it was unrealistic to expect him to throw like one, too.

Or maybe all the big guy needed was time. Maybe he needed the offseason to heal, to train, to bear down and prepare for a full season at full speed.

We had our doubts, but now, Schilling claims, he never did.

''No," he said. ''I love stuff like that. Unfortunately, that's how a lot of people go through life. They go and evaluate people on what they have and haven't done. I never have.

''I'm me. It doesn't mean I can't do things that have never been done. It's a challenge. That's part of the rush of being in the big leagues and being among the best in the world, is a challenge like that, of people writing you off.

''They were doing it all the way up until the end of spring training. And I'm sure there are still people out there wondering if it's for real."

He is right. It is only April, and the Red Sox haven't been bumping up against the meat of the American League, and there are plenty who will still adopt a wait-and-see approach with Boston's ace.

It sure doesn't feel like a stretch to me to proclaim Schilling repaired, revived, and re-booted. His verve is back, and so is his velocity; last night he was clocked multiple times throwing 95 mile-per-hour fastballs.

If he can continue to perform in a similar manner, it could prove to be the single biggest development toward Boston finding its way back to a championship.

Last night, against a Tampa Bay team that can only be charitably described as bumbling, Schilling submitted six innings of work. He scattered six hits, relying on his cutter, his straight fastball, and an occasional changeup. He struggled at times to hit his target, but his teammates exploded for seven runs in the third, providing him with the kind of cushion pitchers dream about.

Schilling had his pockets of trouble. In the fifth, he gave up a double off the Wall to Toby Hall to start the inning (this, by the way, is heresy in the Curt Code of Pitching. Getting the first batter of each inning, he insists, is critical). Schilling induced the next two outs before coaxing Joey Gathright into hitting a slow roller to shortstop. Sox infielder Alex Gonzalez made a hard charge for the ball, but bobbled it as he went to make the throw. The official scorer resisted ringing up Gonzalez with an error, giving the nod (and the RBI) to the speedy Gathright.

Schilling punched out Travis Lee with a nasty changeup to end the inning, then caught Jonny Gomes swinging to lead off the sixth. That strikeout was the 2,855th of his career, tying him for 15th place all time with Jim Bunning.

By the time Adam Stern crashed into the Wall in pursuit of Hall's next offering -- and caught it to end the sixth -- Schilling was gassed. He had thrown 108 pitches, struck out seven, and walked off with win No. 4 in four tries.

The last time he had such a torrid start to a season was in 2002, when he went 12-1 and finished with a career-high 23 wins.

Such a goal would have been preposterous a month ago. It's not necessarily obtainable -- or necessary -- now either, but the big guy is feeling it.

And what has become more abundantly clear each day is just how little he felt it one year ago. Asked if he had second thoughts about pitching through his obvious ankle discomfort, Schilling answered, ''What other option was there? To sit and wait? I couldn't have done that. I wasn't taught that way."

He is all the way back, he says. He's felt that way for a while. It's fine with him if you still aren't sure.

The way Schilling's busy mind works, it's a lot more fun that way.

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

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives