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Erstwhile Boston Red Sox ace Curt Schilling, having hobbled and talked his way into bullpen duty, broke out the starter kit for closers last week. Schilling has the de rigueur macho facial hair (mustache and goatee), the personalized in-game routine (he stretches and watches the game on TV in the clubhouse until the sixth inning, then tromps dramatically across the outfield to the bullpen) and the tools to get the job done (power fastball and biting splitter). The obligatory theme music, however, needs some work. Schilling made his Boston bullpen debut last Thursday in a 6-6 game against the New York Yankees to the strains of Welcome to the Jungle, whereupon he quickly served up a deciding two-run homer to Alex Rodriguez. Two days later, with neither a tie nor a lead to protect, his ninth-inning accompaniment was less inspiring but more appropriate. The band Creed, seemingly on behalf of a suddenly anxious Red Sox Nation, asked, Are You Ready?
Great question. One year after Schilling made good on his mission to help pitch Boston to a world championship, he is trying to rescue what at week's end was the second-worst bullpen in the American League (5.51 ERA) while injured closer Keith Foulke misses up to six weeks after July 7 arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Schilling's conversion, however, is complicated by his wobbly, surgically repaired right ankle--he admits that he cannot push off the pitching rubber properly, which curtails his velocity--and the uncertainty of whether he'll be able to retake his rightful place atop the rotation later this season.
"The one thing I'm worried about," Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace says, "is how we'll be able to get [his arm] stretched out so he can start again this year. We won't use him like a traditional one-inning closer. We'll have to pick spots to leave him out there for a couple of innings."
Says teammate Johnny Damon of the bullpen's new, $14.5 million member, "He's paid to be an ace, and ultimately that's where we need him. And Curt knows that. He said it himself."
It was Damon who caused a stir over Schilling's move to closer when he told The Boston Globe in comments published on July 7, "You've got a lot of upset people in here.... I don't think he's ready to be our closer.... Mike Timlin deserves to be it.... The whole team wants Timlin, and if not Timlin, [Bronson] Arroyo."
Before the game on Thursday, Schilling and Damon spoke briefly for the first time since the centerfielder made his comments to the Globe. Said Schilling afterward, "There is no issue between us. I know Johnny. He would never say anything derogatory about a teammate. It's just sometimes the more he talks, the more he tries to go out of his way not to [say something derogatory], the more it sounds like he is."
Manager Terry Francona says the 39-year-old Timlin, a setup man who last closed in 2000, will get occasional save opportunities depending on matchups or Schilling's availability. After yielding the game-tying run in the eighth inning of Thursday's game, Timlin reacted brusquely when asked what he expected his role to be. "You're going to have to ask Francona," he snarled. "We're not here to guess. We're here to get outs."
Earlier that day an annoyed Damon denied a Boston Herald gossip item that his wife, Michelle, and Schilling's wife, Shonda, nearly had to be separated after ALCS Game 3 last October during a quarrel over good-luck scarves that Shonda had handed out to the players' wives and girlfriends earlier in the postseason. The Herald claimed the incident influenced Damon's nonsupport for Schilling as a closer. Damon, who at week's end was riding a 29-game hitting streak, is eligible for free agency after the season. A source close to him said the Red Sox have floated the idea of a three-year, $25-million extension, but that Damon wants at least four years and a higher salary. "I don't know where they come up with this stuff," Damon said about the scarves incident. "It's a bunch of stuff people made up."
Welcome to July, when the oppressive heat and humidity is compounded by trade rumors and percolating pennant races. "July is a tense month," Boston general manager Theo Epstein says, "but I expect we'll come out of July focused, stronger and playing our best baseball, as we did last year."
After the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline last year--the day the Red Sox dealt gloomy shortstop Nomar Garciaparra-- Boston played at a .716 clip (53-21), including its unprecedented eight-game winning streak to close out the postseason. In those eight games Schilling, Foulke, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe were a combined 6-0 with a 2.11 ERA. None occupy the same roles with the Red Sox today. ( Martinez and Lowe departed as free agents to the Mets and the Dodgers, respectively.)