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.)
Epstein says he does not expect to make a major trade this year--he regards the asking prices for closers Billy Wagner of Philadelphia and Eddie Guardado of Seattle as too high--but can supplement his bullpen with three hard-throwing minor leaguers: righthanders Manny Delcarmen and Jon Papelbon and lefty Jon Lester.
Boston's series last weekend against the Yankees showed why the AL East, for the first time in five years, might be won with fewer than 95 victories--and for the first time in 17 seasons might be a three-team race, with the Baltimore Orioles in the hunt. The Red Sox, with their troublesome bullpen and aceless rotation, and the Yankees, who should have Simon Cowell as their pitching coach the way they audition starters, blasted each other for 51 runs in four games. So desperate were the Yankees that they gave starts to the newly acquired Tim Redding, who was 0-5 with a 9.10 ERA for San Diego through June 29 (Boston first baseman Kevin Millar referred to him on Saturday as "that Redding guy"), and 39-year-old Al Leiter, whom the Marlins dumped along with his 6.64 ERA on Saturday. Leiter, who broke in with the Yankees in 1987 and allowed just three hits and one run in 6 1/3 innings to win Sunday's game, was the 22nd pitcher and the 11th starter used by New York this year; the records for a playoff team are, respectively, 26 and 15. By taking three of four at Fenway Park, the Yankees pulled to within a half-game of the first-place Red Sox.
"One team will get hot before it's all said and done," Epstein says, "and get into the mid-90s [in wins]."
Says Damon, who at week's end was second in the league in hitting at .342, "No way one team is going to run away with it."
Pronouncements from the Boston clubhouse were much more robust as recently as June 25, when, one day after moving into first place, the Red Sox beat the Phillies 7-1 for their 11th victory during a 12-1 run. Crowed Millar then, according to Globe, "We're going to the Series, boys!... We're back. The [expletive] Sox are on a roll!"
From the end of that 13-game tear through Sunday, the [expletive] Sox went 6-11 and won only one of five series. Along the way Boston's plans for Schilling changed. On July 4 Foulke, who had been pitching poorly with a sore left knee, blew a save against Texas. In a private meeting that night Francona and an exasperated Foulke agreed that the righthander should get the cartilage in the knee repaired. The next day Schilling, who had made one relief appearance since 1992, told Francona, "If there's a bullpen job you want me to do, I'll do it."
Said Francona on Friday, "It was something I had been kicking around in my head."
Schilling had undergone surgery in November to repair his famously injured ankle tendon, the one held together by an innovative suturing technique, developed on a cadaver, that caused blood to ooze through his sock during his ALCS Game 6 and World Series Game 2 starts. Doctors told him that he would need 18 months to return to full strength. Instead the 38-year-old righthander made three starts in April, with little success, before instability in the ankle put him on the disabled list. When he pitched in five minor league games this month as part of a rehabilitation assignment, Schilling still did not have enough stability in the ankle to repeat his delivery for the 100 or so pitches expected from a starter. Bullpen work, he decided, would allow him to continue to build strength in his ankle and his arm while contributing to the team. "If I'm not going to be throwing 94 or 93 [mph] consistently, I have to pitch with what I've got, not with what I want," Schilling says.
In his two appearances against New York, Schilling did throw one fastball 94 mph but otherwise topped out between 90 and 92. He lost on Thursday on two consecutive toothless splitters: Gary Sheffield drilled the first off the famed leftfield wall, and Rodriguez whacked the second. Schilling did retire the next three batters, plus the three he faced on Saturday. "This is not a perfect world right now," Francona says. "I'd love to have Curt Schilling for eight innings and 120 pitches, but I don't have that Curt Schilling. We took two negatives--Foulkie going down and Schill not having stability in the ankle--and tried to make a positive."
Without Schilling, though, the Red Sox' rotation is not dominant. Arroyo, who was hit hard in an 8-6 loss last Thursday, is a career 26-28 pitcher. David Wells is 41, and while he pitched efficiently in a 17-1 rout on Friday, he still had an ERA (4.73) worse than the league average. Matt Clement started the season 9-1 but has a 79-78 career record and was 1-2 with a 9.53 ERA in July after Saturday's 7-4 loss. Tim Wakefield (8-8, 4.12), who gave up five runs in nine innings in Sunday's 5-3 loss, has been serviceable but, as always, is susceptible to the unpredictable behavior of his knuckleball. Wade Miller had won twice in 12 starts with a 5.03 ERA.
Boston's plan is that by September, a healthy Foulke will again be closing games, at least one of its top prospects will reinforce the bullpen and Schilling will get his arm and ankle strong enough to be an ace again. For now, though, it's a jungle out there.