Sharp Schilling sets pace for Red Sox

Sharp Schilling sets pace for Red Sox

BOSTON -- With each start, Curt Schilling has been looking more and more like the battle-tested veteran the Red Sox can rely on deep into October. And on Tuesday night, he even got a reward that had been absent of late. Schilling, in leading the Red Sox to a 7-3 victory over the Athletics, found himself in the winner's circle for the first time since Aug. 24.

The right-hander, who has re-made himself the last few weeks from pure power pitcher to location artist, finally got some validation for his strong effort.

Over six innings, Schilling scattered six hits and allowed one run. He struck out six batters and didn't issue a walk in running his record to 9-8 while lowering his ERA to 3.87.

With five games remaining, Boston's lead in the American League East is three. And that is also the magic number for the Red Sox to clinch their first division title since 1995.

"We're at the point in time when it's not about playing well -- it's about playing as well as we can play and winning games," said Schilling. "I think when I went out for the fourth and saw the Yankees had gone up 5-0, I was kind of like, 'Hey, no margin for error now. We need a win.' I thought we did some good things after that."

And so did the Devil Rays more than 1,000 miles to the south. They came back from that deficit against the Yankees and won on a walk-off homer in the 10th, putting the Red Sox in a position where they can perhaps start to sniff that division title.

"This team, we've been playing good," said Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo. "We need to keep playing good. We need to keep playing confident, play some good baseball and do the little things so we can go into the playoffs knowing that we're the Red Sox."

In fact, they looked a little more like the Red Sox in this one.

Aside from the winning result, the Red Sox also got a couple of key players back. Manny Ramirez, after missing 24 games with a strained left oblique, batted second and played left field, going 1-for-2 with a walk in a five-inning stint.

"We got our two-hole hitter back," quipped Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "It's about time."

Kevin Youkilis, who had missed seven games with a right wrist contusion, made his return by pinch-hitting for Eric Hinske in the fifth inning.

"I've changed physically as a pitcher. Until I accepted that mentally and from an approach standpoint, it wasn't going to matter a whole lot."
-- Curt Schilling

As important as any of those things heading into crunch time is that Schilling is a highly confident pitcher at the moment. Given his track record in October, that is no small thing.

"I just feel better about what I'm doing out there," said Schilling. "I'm more confident in what I'm doing. I've changed physically as a pitcher. Until I accepted that mentally and from an approach standpoint, it wasn't going to matter a whole lot."

Just a couple of months ago, the question with Schilling was whether he could stlll pitch at such a high level even with diminished velocity caused my midseason shoulder woes. Now that he's proven that, the only question is whether he pitches Game 2 or 3 of the American League Division Series. Either way, the Red Sox will feel confident.

"He hasn't forgotten how to pitch," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "You give him a game plan, and he can really execute it."

Another key to the stretch for the Red Sox is getting Eric Gagne on track. Francona gave him the ball in the eighth, up by a score of 4-1. Gagne gave up a leadoff single, then recorded two outs before walking Jack Cust. On came Jonathan Papelbon for what amounted to a one-pitch save.

In actuality, Papelbon didn't get the save because he wasn't needed for the ninth. This is because the Red Sox, backed by a monster two-run homer by David Ortiz, scored three in the bottom of the eighth to make it 7-1.

"First game of a homestand [where] they're all huge games," said Francona. "Pap came in and made one pitch, but he got a big out. We spread it out where we didn't have to send him back out. We played a good game tonight."

Still, the A's were the early aggressors. With one out in the top of the first, Daric Barton smashed an 89-mph offering from Schilling over the wall in right to make it 1-0.

That was the last mistake Schilling would make. And the Red Sox didn't take long to answer. Ramirez, in his first at-bat since Aug. 28, jump-started the rally. With one out in the first, he roped a one-out single to right. David Ortiz followed with a walk and Mike Lowell smashed an RBI double off the Green Monster to tie it at 1.

From there, both Schilling and A's starter Chad Gaudin settled into grooves for the next few innings.

However, that changed in the bottom of the fifth, when Gaudin had a control meltdown. The righty walked the first four batters of the inning, forcing in the go-ahead run. With one out, Jacoby Ellsbury lofted a sacrifice fly to right to make it a 3-1 game. Ellsbury added an RBI single in the seventh to bump the lead to three runs.

But the night belonged to Schilling.

"I still think it comes down to location of his fastball," said Varitek. "It may not [still have] the power, but [he] still relies on the location of his fastball. Give it a little mix at different times off his other pitches. It's made his other pitches better."

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.