'Pen holds down Twins for Schilling

'Pen holds down Twins for Schilling

MINNEAPOLIS -- The day they lost out on Roger Clemens -- again -- nearly turned into a double loss for the Red Sox.

Curt Schilling cruised along into the seventh against Minnesota with a four-run lead and a shutout. But Schilling stumbled in a three-run seventh, and it took another good effort from relievers Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon for the Sox to escape with a 4-3 victory.

Though Boston also lost a key run to a baserunning blunder by Alex Cora -- a run manager Terry Francona said he wished he had in the ninth inning -- they won a series at the Metrodome for the first time since 2000, and head to Toronto still firmly in first place in the American League East.

"We've lost games like this here so often, when bad things happen," Francona said. "Some bad things happened here when we didn't add on, but we found a way to win."

Credit the bullpen for that. Schilling blamed himself for losing focus in the seventh, when he walked .171-hitting Luis Rodriguez by missing three straight times from a 1-1 count, then hanging a splitter three batters later that Jason Tyner laced into right a two-run single. "Poor game management" is how Schilling described his sequences to his last four hitters, three of whom reached base.

The right-handed-hitting Torii Hunter, who extended his hitting streak to 21 games earlier in the game, grounded an RBI single to right off Okajima to make it a one-run game before the Japanese left-hander drew an inning-ending groundout from the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, Justin Morneau. Okajima had not let an inherited runner score this season.

Okajima then worked a scoreless eighth, stranding the tying run at second. Papelbon finished up the ninth for his 10th save as Boston took two of three in the weekend series.

"For us to have scored only seven runs in the series, and to have won the series, shows our pitching is doing an outstanding job," third baseman Mike Lowell said.

The victory kept the Sox 5 1/2 games in front of the Yankees, who moved alone into second place in the American League East by beating Seattle.

Though Francona gave Manny Ramirez his first day off this season, the struggling Sox bats mustered just enough offense to beat Minnesota starter Sidney Ponson, whose career mark against the Sox remains abysmal (3-11, 6.61). Three of the four runs charged to Ponson in 5 1/3 innings were earned. The other scored on Ponson's error in the fifth, when he rushed and bounced a throw on an attempted force play at second.

J.D. Drew's two RBIs included a run-scoring double in the first, and Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek added RBI singles. Youkilis left the game after taking a Glen Perkins pitch in the left thigh in the seventh inning.

Things were going along smoothly for Boston until the sixth, when Cora got greedy with a 4-0 lead. Cora was on first and Dustin Pedroia on third when Cora tried to tag up and advance on David Ortiz's fly to left. Jason Kubel threw perfectly to second, and Luis Castillo slapped the tag on Cora a whisker before Pedroia touched the plate.

"That was a bad baserunning play," Cora said. "It was a mistake. I just messed up."

Though Francona defended Cora's aggressiveness, he added, "Later in the game, I was trying to figure out a way to put that run back on the board."

Despite the problems in the seventh, Francona said he liked what he saw from Schilling (4-1, 3.28), who posted his fifth quality start in six outings since his Opening Day loss at Kansas City. Schilling struck out seven and allowed eight hits, three of them in the seventh, for his first career victory in Minnesota.

"The first six innings, he was as comfortable as he's looked in his delivery all year," Francona said.

Said Schilling: "For 6 2/3 innings, I felt really good -- good command, first-pitch strikes, executing. I'm glad we won it, because I almost let it slip away."

Okajima, since giving up a homer to John Buck on his first Major League pitch, has thrown 16 consecutive scoreless innings, and his ERA fell to 0.56. Sunday was only the second time in 16 appearances that Okajima gave up two hits.

The Twins, again without Joe Mauer (left quad strain) and Michael Cuddyer (sore back), went down in order in the ninth against Papelbon, who pumped fastballs as hard as 96 mph to strike out Jason Bartlett leading off.

"Like I said from Day 1, pitching will always win us ballgames," Youkilis said.

Even without a certain pitcher they coveted.

Pat Borzi is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.