Last week, in a trade deadline deal, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein made the best bullpen in baseball even better by landing closer Eric Gagne from the Texas Rangers. Tonight, he and the Red Sox work on the other end of the pitching staff, as the best starting rotation in the game gets a boost with the return of Curt Schilling to the mound.
So, forgive us for posing the question, but who indeed starts Game 1 of the ALDS?
With all due respect to de facto ace Josh Beckett and the American emergence of Daisuke Matsuzaka, how Schilling pitches the rest of the way will in large part determine just how far these runaway Red Sox will go come the fall. He won’t sniff a 20-win season, as Beckett, Matsuzaka, and yes, Tim Wakefield, seem on track to achieve. There will be no Cy Young discussion with Schill’s name involved. Nor will anyone confuse his repertoire with that of some of the younger studs lighting up the future of the game.
But make no mistake, Schilling’s start in Orange County tonight against the Angels is the most important by any Red Sox pitcher at any juncture this season.
At this point, the playoffs are an almost foregone conclusion, no matter how easy the Yankees make it seem to slug the ball against stalwarts Kansas City and Chicago. The Red Sox have played .600 ball for 111 games, are in the midst of the final difficult stretch of the season, and finish 2007 with mostly a cupcake schedule, aside from six more meetings with those Yankees and four more with these Angels later this month. There's plenty of evidence that the answer is the Red Sox when the question of the best team in baseball is asked.
But October, well, of course that’s a different matter entirely.
Look no further than new Mr. 300 for a primo example of a dominant pitching staff not necessarily being enough for World Series glory. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz have exactly one World Series title to their names despite making up one of the most dominant pitching staffs of the last decade together. One. Not that their postseason performances are embarrassing (Glavine, 14-16, 3.42; Maddux, 11-14, 3.34; Smoltz, 15-4, 2.65), but when you think of an October pitcher, only Smoltz comes to mind.
So does Bob Gibson. Dave Stewart too. Jack Morris, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera.
And then there is Schilling, who even at 40 is the best big game pitcher there is today.
After a less than stellar string of starts at the major league level, Schilling has opened more than a few eyes with his recent rehab stint for Triple-A Pawtucket, in which he allowed a grand total of zero runs to cross the plate over 15 innings of work. He allowed eight baserunners. He walked zero. He struck out 18 as the overmatched kids and hangers-on managed just a .157 batting average against him.
How that translates to the major leagues tonight against the Angels is the question on everybody’s mind.
There is doubt swirling around Schilling’s return, which might be the best news of all for Red Sox fans. He came to camp out of shape and was seemingly a different pitcher each time he took the mound this spring. There was the Opening Day stinker against the Royals, a trio of hammerings courtesy of the Yankees, and his last start, a six-run allowance against the Braves that spelled his trip to the disabled list. There is indeed reason to wonder if the Schilling the Red Sox get tonight is the one they want, the one they need in less than 60 days.
But there was serious doubt for a five-day period in June too, remember, after Schilling gave up four earned runs to the Yankees over just five innings. It was the third time already in 2007 that he wasn’t able to get past the fifth inning (he also failed to go five in each of his last two starts before hitting the DL). Suddenly, Epstein’s decision not to award him a contract in spring training seemed a most intelligent decision.
And then Schilling, aware of such dubious views in his direction, went out to Oakland, where the Red Sox had lost three straight, in danger of beginning to flounder, and very nearly tossed the team’s first no-hitter since Derek Lowe’s feat in 2002. If it weren’t already so, it became evident to everyone with even a passing interest of the game that afternoon that Schilling still is the team’s most important, indispensable asset.
The last time he pitched in the postseason was Game 2 of the 2004 World Series. He’s 8-2 in October, with a 2.06 ERA. And tonight, he tries to jump-start what has been his worst season since his injury-shortened 2005 campaign.
He’ll take the mound nine more times, give or take, after tonight. And at least one more after the calendar shifts to October. Maybe two, three, or more. How many largely depends not only on his shoulder, but also Beckett, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Gagne, Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, and Mike Timlin.
They are the best pitching staff in baseball, and over the course of seven days, they just got a whole lot better. Schilling’s been missing the party recently (the Sox went 24-18 without him) and he’s got plenty to prove starting tonight. And when it comes time to proving people wrong, there’s nobody Boston would rather have on the mound.