"Spoke to [Curt] Schilling last night, he had his best day yet," said Francona. "He threw, I think, 75 pitches in the bullpen."
Schilling has been rehabbing his right ankle at the Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., since June 1. The original plan was for the big right-hander to check back into Fenway on Monday when the Sox begin their homestand.
But as productive as things are going for Schilling in Arizona, he might stay there a few extra days.
"He may stay a couple more days because he's getting so much one on one," Francona said. "We'll see how it goes. I know he talked to [assistant trainer] Chris Correnti a little bit. I don't think that just because we're coming back from the homestand, I'm not sure it makes sense for him to be here just because we're here, if he can get more done there."
The good news is that Schilling has been able to keep his arm strong while being disabled since April 27. The issue remains getting the ankle strong enough to stand up to the rigors of pitching every fifth day.
"He needs to strengthen that," said Francona. "That's what we kind of talked about. He said, 'I want to do whatever gets me back faster.' I said, 'OK, me too.' So how do we do that? That's kind of what we talked about last night."
Through the entire time Schilling has been sidelined, the Sox have steadfastly held to their belief of not setting a specific timetable for his return. Schilling said a couple of weeks ago that his goal was to return before the All-Star break.
"I think that's a target that he set. I like the fact that he set it, because I think it helps him get better quicker," Francona said. "Everybody's different, but I think it helps him to have a target. If that's the case, good. But if he can reach that target, great. But we won't let him until he's ready."
As for Schilling's absence, Francona refuses to use it as an excuse for the recent struggles of his team.
"As much as I respect what he can do, we don't sit around thinking about it," Francona said. "The 'woe is me' thing doesn't work. I think we all feel like we should be good enough to win. That's how we approach it. [The Cubs have] got guys out, everybody does."
Mirabelli eyes Sunday return: The plans are in motion for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli to be activated in time for Sunday night's game against the Cubs. That will allow struggling knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to throw to his regular catcher for the first time since May 15.
The Sox were holding off on announcing the move just to make sure Mirabelli made it through the day without a setback.
"He's been doing pretty well," said Francona. "We tried to slow it down to a point where he wouldn't come out and hurt himself. Even if we were shooting for a little bit more rust and less pain. He's doing a good job with it."
Nomar's ring fits: At an undisclosed off-site location, Red Sox captain Jason Varitek presented former teammate Nomar Garciaparra with his World Series championship ring on Friday night.
Though Garciaparra was traded on July 31, every player who made an appearance for the 2004 Sox has received -- or will receive -- a ring.
It was fitting for Garciaparra to receive the ring from Varitek, as their friendship goes all the way back to their days as teammates at Georgia Tech.
"We're doing it as former teammates and as friends" Varitek told The Boston Globe before giving Garciaparra his ring. "He's been playing with some of us for a long time."
Millar likely on Sunday: Though Francona didn't want to announce his lineup ahead of time, he was leaning toward starting Kevin Millar at first base for Sunday night's game, and giving David Ortiz the night off.
With Ortiz playing first base during this road trip because there is no DH, Millar -- who caught fire at the end of the last homestand - has started just one of the last five games.
Jay Payton will probably play right field, with Trot Nixon getting the day off against left-handed starter Glendon Rusch.
Arroyo's slump: Bronson Arroyo has swiftly gone from a lights-out start to a slump. But Francona didn't seem overly worked up about the lanky right-hander.
"He's just as not as crisp as he's been," said Francona. "We've got a good pitcher. He's going through a rough stretch, we have to get him back on track."
On deck: Wakefield (4-6, 5.13 ERA) tries to snap a five-game losing streak when he opposes Rusch (5-1, 2.07 ERA) in the Sunday night finale.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.