Before Saturday's game, manager Terry Francona announced that Curt Schilling will finally get his wish. Schilling is due to resume his role as the staff's number one starter on Thursday against the slumping Royals. It's an ideal situation for the 38-year old. The Royals lost their 19th consecutive game on Friday night, the longest such streak in the Majors since the Orioles lost 21 consecutive games to begin the 1988 season.
Schilling's move into the rotation creates as many questions as answers. First, who's spot will he take? Wade Miller is the likely option. Due to Miller's shoulder stiffness, and inconsistent performance this season, rookie Jonathan (don't call him Jon) Papelbon is filling in during his absence. Secondly, who becomes the closer? As of now, Mike Timlin is expected to serve as the primary closer until Foulke returns. Lastly, who assumes Timlin's valuable and consistent set up role? Any combination of the rookies Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen will likely see action. Another possible and interesting scenario would have Foulke becoming the set up man, and the tenacious Timlin remaining in the closer's role. Timlin has just the sort of aggressive and competitive personality, not to mention experience, to excel as the closer. Furthermore, after being booed at Fenway earlier this season, Foulke complained about the pressure of being the closer, saying he'd be happy pitching in any capacity. The team might be better off with him setting up Timlin.
During an incredible run in last year's post season, Foulke pitched in seven of the eight games and finished five of them. During the World Series, he closed all four games, winning Game 1 and saving Game 4, while allowing one run on seven hits in five innings. In whatever cpacity he serves down the stretch, the Sox will need him to be at, or near, that level if they expect to repeat as champions this season.
Schilling returned to the active roster on July 14 and became the closer when Foulke went on the disabled list following knee surgery. Foulke is expected to begin a rehab assignment next week and could be back in the pen by the end of the month. According to Foulke, "If I'm not back by Sept. 1 there's something worse going on than my knee. I suspect I should be pitching well before Sept. 1. That's just my opinion."
The concern with Schilling won't be just his surgically repaired ankle, but his stamina as well. Since coming back on July 14, he's appeared in 30 games, accumulating a 4-3 record and nine saves. Schilling will turn 39 in November, and most players that age take longer to heal and also find their stamina to be decreasing.
Since his July return, Schilling has thrown 362 pitches. The average major league pitcher would hit that mark in just over three starts. Schilling doesn't think it will take him long to return to form, but his velocity has been inconsistent and many have questioned his ability to push off with the still recovering ankle. As Schilling said himself on Friday night, "The ankle won't be right for at least another eight to 10 months."
Overall, the big righty is 5-5 with a 6.37 ERA in 23 appearances this season. Before pitching two scoreless innings on Friday night, striking out four on 27 pitches, Schilling's August ERA had ballooned to 8.31. That swollen ERA is due to outings like the one he had on Monday night against Detroit. After holding a two run lead with one out in the ninth, the wheels fell of the wagon. Schilling surrendered four hits and three runs in one inning, culminating with John McDonald's two out, walk-off single. After that meltdown, Schilling had been scored on in three straight outings, though the Sox persevered on the previous two occasions.
Perhaps Johnny Damon put it best after that game. "He's not the Curt Schilling that finished up last season. He needs some work. He knows it. This was a rough outing for him. He'll find it."
All of Red Sox Nation hopes so, and would love to share Damon's optimism. If the Sox are to advance through October, they'll need Schilling to pitch like he did on Friday night against the Angels, and not like he did on Monday against the Tigers.
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