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Dan Shaughnessy

It's not a total loss

Schilling's return is a silver lining

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Red Sox strengthened their roster more than any contender in the week after the trading deadline. And we are not talking about the expensive acquisition of Eric Gagne.

With eight weeks to play, the Sox added a guy who is a World Series MVP . . . one of the greatest October pitchers of any generation . . . a guy who can throw an unhittable splitter . . . a man of wealth and taste . . . a legitimate strike machine, a video game designer, a statesman-in-waiting, a radio personality, and a very fine blogger . . .

The one and only, Curt Schilling.

That's right, Big Schill is back. He pitched six-plus innings in a 4-2 loss to the Orange County/Los Angeles/California Angels last night, his first major league appearance since June 18. He was pulled from the game with no outs in the top of the seventh after surrendering a solo homer to the immortal Maicer Izturis and a double to Jeff (0 for 18) Mathis.

"It's disappointing," Schilling said. "I could have very easily shut those guys out if I have made some pitches. I hung a couple of splitters."

Schilling threw a lot of off-speed stuff, blanking the Angels on two hits with three strikeouts in the first three innings. There was trouble in the fourth. Vlad Guerrero led with a hard hopper up the middle -- a ball Schilling attempted to barehard while leaping awkwardly to his right. The ball skipped off Schillling's index finger and into center field. Schilling threw some warmup tosses before determining it was OK to continue.

Schilling hurt himself in a different way when he faced Garret Anderson. The Angels DH hit a hard grounder to Kevin Youkilis and it would have been a 3-6-1 double play had Schilling gotten over to cover in time. Predictably, the next batter (Gary Matthews Jr.) doubled to left and Casey Kotchman plated Anderson and Matthews with a single to center to make it a 2-2 ballgame.

"I didn't cover first, and that's a bad assumption," said Schilling. "I thought [Youkilis] was going to go back to cover the bag. Not turning that double play changed everything about that inning. It let them turn it into a big inning."

Schilling blanked the Halos in the fifth and sixth. Mr. 38 Pitches threw only 75 pitches in the first six innings, giving up seven hits, but striking out five with no walks. Given the long layoff and the caliber of the opposition, it was pretty impressive and bodes well for Schilling and the Sox in these next three months.

Then came the fateful seventh and the hanging splitters.

Shoulder tendinitis put Schilling on the shelf just a little over a week after his one-hitter against the A's in early June. In his two starts after Oakland, it was obvious that he had no zip on his fastball. He was Wasdinesque. Rest and rehab were required.

The Sox went 24-18 while Schilling was gone and were still a safe (we think) 6 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees when the big lug threw his first pitch to Chone Figgins.

"How much you miss somebody depends on how other people do," said manager Terry Francona. "Wake [Tim Wakefield] caught fire and Daisuke [Matsuzaka] had a hot June and Kason Gabbard pitched well, so it wasn't as glaring as it could have been. But if you have him for the rest of the season, we have to be a better team."

A long break in the middle of the season is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a pitcher with as much mileage as Schilling. In 1986, Sox lefty Bruce Hurst went down with a groin pull in midsummer and missed a good part of the season. When October rolled around, Hurst was at the top of his game while young Roger Clemens (24-4) was spent. Hurst dominated the Mets in his first two World Series starts.

Schilling's stretch run should prove interesting on several levels. He joins a rotation that already has three 13-game winners (including Josh Beckett, who has 14) and he has the backing of what now looks like the best bullpen in baseball. This bodes well for the Red Sox and for Schilling.

There are also individual considerations in play. Schilling, who turns 41 in September, tried to pressure the Sox into giving him a contract extension this spring. Cold-blooded Boston management called his bluff and effectively told him to get in better shape and pitch for his next deal.

Schill appeared to have the upper hand when he improved to 4-1 in early May, but his injury changed everything. His price on the market plummeted while he sat on the disabled list and he managed to insult Theo Epstein with one of his "a-guy-who-never-wore-the-uniform-can't-possibly-know" riffs. Now he's pitching for his supper again.

He looked good in his three rehab starts, giving up zero runs in 15 innings against minor league hitters. But he's been hit pretty hard over the last 12 months. Unable to win consistently, Schilling has given up 212 hits (22 homers) in his last 170 innings.

"I haven't been consistent for a long time," he conceded. "It's a matter of me making adjustments and I have not consistently done that."

Still, it was a pretty good outing for a guy coming back from the disabled list after seven weeks. By any measurement, Schilling's return to the rotation is a bonus for the Red Sox. He's pitching for his next contract and he's a proven winner in October. It's a good mix of achievement and urgency.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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