Pivot factor

This isn’t just the rubber game of this three-game series in Kansas City. In essence, tonight is the rubber game of the Red Sox’ 2005 season.

Curt Schilling, ace of the Red Sox, he who is perhaps credited the most for delivering the first World Series title in 86 years to Boston, makes his first start since April 23 in Kansas City, in an outing that will begin to determine if Boston has the tools for a repeat October performance.

It isn’t every day that you look at a particular matchup like tonight’s against the Royals and see that Schilling and Jose Lima have similar ERAs (6.43 for Schilling to Lima’s 6.47). At the very least, this should be the highest-rated Red Sox-Royals game of the season, if not possibly the highest-scoring.

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If it hasn’t quite been a lost season for Schilling, it has indeed been one in which he has had a difficult time finding his way. In three starts early this season, he was completely ineffective, allowing 16 runs over 18 2/3 innings, suffering a pair of ugly losses to the Yankees and Devil Rays and somehow pulling out a Patriots Day win against the Blue Jays, when he was rapped for 11 hits and five runs over just five innings. Then came the extended disabled list stint, his dubiously unimpressive rehab stint for Pawtucket, and then his conversion to closer, a job he performed valiantly, if not exactly splendidly.

While Schilling’s nine saves helped stabilize a bullpen in a time of dire need, his stint wasn’t exactly a marked improvement over the disastrous season that an injured Keith Foulke had put together. Things were bumpy from the get-go. In the very first game he pitched in relief — which happened to be the very first game of the season’s second half against New York — he took the loss in an 8-6 Yankees win. But July proved successful for Schilling in the games following. He put up a 2.41 ERA the rest of the month with five saves. As for August … well, August was another story.

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In a three-game stretch mid-month, Schilling actually made us miss the cantankerous closer, Foulke. Heck, Mike Timlin is starting to make us miss Schilling, who escaped his bullpen duty last weekend with a 6.94 ERA in August. Schilling caused many a fingernail to be swept away by the Fenway night cleanup crew, bitten away by members of the Nation while their ace/closer nearly tossed a game away against the White Sox. A few nights later, he imploded in Detroit, allowing three runs in the bottom of the ninth for his fifth loss of the season.

Schilling was finally solid in his next outing, a two-inning, no-hit performance against the Angels last Friday night in which he got the win, his first successful outing in 10 days. The very next day it was announced that he was headed back into the rotation, a necessary move if the Red Sox are to be considered a serious playoff contender.

Last October in the ALDS, it was Schilling and Pedro Martinez who got the Sox a 2-0 series lead over the Angels with back-to-back solid outings. It was in his ALCS start that Schilling aggravated an ankle injury that would soon turn him into a sports icon, and later a broken down star who made a physical sacrifice in order to win. Almost a year later and Schilling is still working his way back. If he is not able to, Red Sox Nation might not enter a similar series against the Angels with the same confidence it had last time around. No Red Sox starter this season has an ERA below 4, and if Schilling can’t get it done, the Red Sox starting staff remains a serviceable — yet fortunate — group, aided by the best offense in baseball.

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How Schilling performs tonight will not immediately determine the Red Sox’ playoff fate, but it will go a long way toward telling us what the team might expect out of its ace. If Schilling goes five tonight, consider it a triumph. If he allows five runs, consider that a nice step, too. If he keeps allowing five runs a game, then we’ll have a problem.

The truth is, the Red Sox are depending on a pitcher who has had more down moments than up (in ’05) to deliver them another World Series title. Schilling’s run as closer was admirable, even mildly successful at certain periods, but this is where he belongs, where he is needed. There has been no sign that the ace is completely healthy, able to burden the load of starting games, yet last year’s chain of events signals that you don’t count him out until it’s all over.

What to expect? Who knows. I wouldn’t expect five shutout innings, at least to start out. Schilling has been far too erratic — whether it be in his early season starts, rehab, or closing stint — to expect immediate dominance from his right arm. It’s just not realistic. Theo Epstein and Terry Francona have already tried to temper the expectations of a Nation drooling over the prospect of their ace’s return, the former pointing out, “Five starts will be more telling than two.”

In reality, it is the full gamut — eight starts (the number Schilling hopes to get down the stretch) — that will be the most telling. If he can pitch at least five innings in each of those starts from now until October, it will almost double the number of innings he has thrown this season (42) in a little more than a month. His health will remain a concern until he gets into the sixth, maybe the seventh, inning. He seems destined to finish this season with his highest career ERA since 1989, when he was a young pup with the Orioles.

And yet, none of this season will matter. Not the saves in a time of need, not the horrific outings early on. Not even what happens over these next five weeks. The only thing that will matter is if Schilling proves he can once again be an effective starter over the next couple outings, working his way back to the ace of the staff in time for the baseball tournament to begin, and his moment to shine will again be on tap.

Don’t expect a whole lot tonight though, even against the last-place Royals. Five innings, three runs would be tremendous. But the Sox would gladly let this rubber game go if the grander one proves fruitful.

O, what a mess

Remember when the Orioles were one of baseball’s best stories? No, this season, not 1983.

Next thing you know, their future Hall of Famer turns out to be a lying cheater, still adored though by the clueless Orioles fans, who’ll probably give Sidney Ponson his own standing ovation the next time he starts at Camden Yards.

Ponson was arrested around 1:30 this morning for drunk driving just south of Baltimore, the second time this year he has been changed with such an offense. Ponson has been on the DL and was expected gone another three weeks. After this latest charge, the Baltimore front office might not care if the tubby hurler is gone for the rest of the season.

Not even the Red Sox in 1978 suffered as bad a collapse as the Orioles have this season. It was just a little more than a month ago mind you that they were 47-40, sitting in first place in the AL East. They’ve won just 13 times since them over 38 games, and are 12 1/2 games out of the top slot.

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