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Schilling prepared for Sox' playoff task

By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / September 25, 2007

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The transformation is almost complete, and now Curt Schilling is eager, even nervous, to answer perhaps the most important question left for himself and the Red Sox as October approaches.

He is no longer the ace of the staff - that distinction belongs to Josh Beckett - but can he still be Big Game Curt when it matters most?

"We're a couple of weeks away from everything changing," said Schilling, who will be on the mound tonight against the Oakland Athletics as the Sox begin the six-game homestand that ends the regular season.

"I haven't won a lot since I came back, which is disappointing, but I thought I pitched well. Now we're going into the phase of the season where pitching well is absolutely irrelevant. You have to pitch great. So there's some nervousness.

"I've spent almost 15 years putting together a résumé in October, and that's become one of the things I've become known by. That's on the line again."

Name your great postseason pitcher - Ford, Koufax, Gibson, Smoltz - and Schilling's name belongs in the conversation. He is 7-2 lifetime in 15 postseason starts with a 2.06 ERA; he has started a Game 7 in the World Series, he has won elimination games, he has pitched with the bloody sock, he has vanquished the Yankees.

But the 40-year-old Schilling that comes into this October is not the same pitcher who was at his best when the stakes were highest. The makeover was still a work in progress back in June in Oakland, when he held the Athletics hitless until Shannon Stewart singled with two outs in the ninth inning to deprive him of the first no-hitter of his career.

"He's two different guys," catcher Jason Varitek said. "He's gone from throwing 95, 98 down and away with a split, an occasional cutter, an occasional curveball, to more of a complete pitcher, pitching to both sides of the plate, sinking the ball, cutting the ball. He had to learn a whole different realm."

Ask Varitek if he can be Big Game Curt, and there is no hesitation.

"No question," Varitek said. "He can pitch, and he's got enough velocity in the tank, the rotation on his ball. He's got to locate.

"He's been really good his last three outings. He hasn't won, but he's been the best he's been all year. The last two, he finally found his split. He's been pitching without it, so he's learned how to use his other stuff to help complement it."

Schilling gave a glimpse of what October might hold a week ago Sunday in Fenway Park in a celebrated duel with Roger Clemens, two old adversaries pushing each other in a taut, terrific confrontation that ended badly for Schilling when Jason Giambi doubled off a hanging splitter and Derek Jeter hit another hanging split for a three-run home run that broke a 1-all tie in the eighth inning.

"I've been consistent, that's the main thing," said Schilling, who was shut down for almost a month to work on arm strength and overall conditioning after a bad outing in Atlanta convinced the Sox brass that Schilling needed to be retooled. "I've pitched 50 innings since I came back, and I've walked four guys, and commanded the ball in the strike zone.

"The numbers I really pay a lot of attention to are walks and hits per innings pitched. I think I've given up 50 hits. Anybody can say it at any point in the season, but I look at it as two extra hitters in Anaheim and hanging two splits in the Yankee game, games I think I've given up 7, 8 runs where I was one pitch away from walking off saying, 'Wow, what a game.' "

Schilling said he has come to accept the transition from power to finesse pitcher, the same process, Varitek notes, that Pedro Martínez went through in his last years with the Sox.

"I've accepted all the things that come with it," Schilling said. "Instead of working on it, I'm embracing it and approaching the game differently. I don't think I've thrown 100 pitches [since returning], maybe once. I've gone into the sixth, seventh inning of games with a 50-, 60-pitch count, which means that it's working.

"Obviously you'd like to strike more guys out, because the fewer balls you put in play, the fewer hits and runs you give up, but for me the transition from exclusive power guy to a guy that isn't - I've got five pitches - is a drastically different way to go into a game mentally."

The possibility exists that Schilling is looking at his last starts in a Sox uniform; his request for a contract extension this spring was not met by the Sox, and he may opt for free agency for the first time in his career. Last week, he told Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal that he has put his house in Medfield up for sale. Does that signal plans to move from the area, where he also has launched a video gaming company?

"We're not sure," he said. "I understand how the whole process works. There are a lot of things going to come into play. Boston would be my first choice, but we have to be ready in case that happens. We have to prepare for the alternatives."

Schilling represented himself in contract negotiations with the Sox before he was traded to Boston by Arizona after the 2003 season. How will that work for him as a free agent?

"It's going to be easy," he said. "I have a lawyer in Philadelphia, Ed Hayes, who is a player agent. He handles all the legal issues that I have. I've got a window [to re-sign with the Sox, the first 15 days after the World Series]. I want that to happen. If it doesn't work, I'll write a letter to all the teams that we feel are eligible. If someone's interested, we'll find out.

"I'm not going to worry about anything else other than being one of 25 guys trying to win 11 games before everyone else in October."

He will not take the mound tonight, he said, pondering how many more chances he will get here.

"I don't look at it like that," he said. "I've been so blessed, so incredibly lucky my entire life. I guess if I was one of those guys who had a chance to go back, the only thing I'd change in my life is losing my dad at 21. Otherwise, everything's been great. I'm pitching for the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park, going to the postseason.

"I was a guy who wanted to be an arbitration-eligible guy. Then I was a guy who wanted to get to free agency one time. Then I was a guy who wanted to get to 10 years, and here I am, literally 21 years after my career started, pitching for the team that drafted me.

"I'm playing for an incredible manager with incredible teammates. We're going to October. I'm not pitching Game 1 because I'm not the ace of the staff. Josh, I'm so proud of what he's done. But if you're not pitching Game 1, in my mind I'm pitching the most important game of the series, whether it's Game 3, whatever, because do the math. In a five-game series, you're either at 1-1, 2-0, or 2-1, so it's the time of year where you can make a lot of things happen.

"I've always been a guy, October wasn't enough. I always had to add a little piece to it. I've played with guys who look at October as a way to screw up everything that they did during the season. Those guys get beat in October.

"I look at October as a way to enhance everything you've ever done. I've had, in my mind, a horrible year, but now I have a chance to do what [Jeff] Weaver did [for the Cardinals last year] and what D-Lowe [Derek Lowe] did [for the Sox in 2004].

"I can walk away winning four or five games in October. Going into my final season, that would be nice."

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