Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, October 25, 2007

SCHILLING'S START HAS IMPORTANT RAMIFICATIONS

The Red Sox made it look so easy last night. Why? Two reasons; 1.) Josh Beckett 2.) Every batter in the starting lineup had at least one hit, and every one of them -- with the exception of Mike Lowell -- had at least one RBI. In fact, the Red Sox scored more runs than any team in the first game of a World Series. In short, it was a complete team effort.

Firing on all cylinders, the Red Sox derailed the Rockies playoff juggernaut. Colorado had been undefeated in the playoffs, sweeping two consecutive series. Seven games, seven wins. Only the '76 Reds had ever started the post-season with such a streak.

But how good are the Rockies? They won 90 games this season -- most in team history -- yet squeaked into the playoffs simply because the Padres lost their final two games of the season. San Diego choked. Colorado got a second chance. And they capitalized on it. The Rocks beat San Diego in the 13th inning of a one-game playoff -- on a bad call at the plate -- to win the Wild Card. And let's not forget that with two weeks left in the season, they were in fourth place in the wild-card race.

Sure, coming into Game 1 the Rockies had won 21 of their last 22 games. They had won 10 in row overall, and had lost just once since September 16. Like all successful playoff teams, they got hot -- really hot -- at the right time. And clearly luck had been on their side. But luck and ridiculous winning streaks always run out eventually. No one envisioned the Rockies being in the World Series this year -- probably not even the Rockies themselves. They were an after-thought.

So the Red Sox once again turn to Curt Schilling tonight, for the fourth time this post-season, hoping for more of that old October magic.

"I've spent almost 15 years putting together a résumé in October, and that's become one of the things I've become known by. That's on the line again," Schilling said at the start of the playoffs.

But these days, a Schilling start is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get. His season had as many ups and downs as a roller coaster. There was the opening day shellacking he took in Kansas City to the lowly Royals. That immediately raised a red flag; all was not well. But he returned to form and came within one out of a no-hitter in Oakland on June 7. Then came his next start, against the Rockies.

Colorado went 2-1 against the Red Sox this season, outscoring them 20-5 in a June series at Fenway Park. Schilling pitched against them on June 13 and took the loss in a 12-2 beatdown. He lasted just five-plus innings, giving up six runs (five earned) on nine hits. The joy and euphoria of the one-hitter in Oakland was quickly washed away. And it got worse. The 40-year-old righty's next start, on June 18 in Atlanta, was a disaster in which he was roughed up yet again. Even the Braves' hitters knew something was wrong. They weren't facing the dominating Curt Schilling they were used to.

The next day he was on the DL, his season in tatters, his career in jeopardy. Diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis, Schilling remained on the DL from June 19 to August 6. At that point his season appeared over. It was nearly impossible to imagine him pitching in October -- if ever again. Perhaps his illustrious career had finally, unceremoniously, reached its end. How many 40-year-old pitchers bounce back from an injury to their pitching shoulder?

But he managed to return, and finished the season with a less than impressive 9-8 record in 24 starts. Yet he had a very respectable 3.87 ERA. What kind of pitcher was he at this point? Sure the fastball had lost much of its zing, but he could still command his pitches, issuing just 23 walks to his 101 strikeouts this year.

If we've learned anything about Schilling it's this; no one should ever doubt his competitive fire. He is driven to succeed, and to prove himself over and over again -- especially in the post-season.

"I've always been a guy, October wasn't enough. I always had to add a little piece to it," said Schilling. ""I look at October as a way to enhance everything you've ever done."

October is where he's earned his salary, and his reputation as a big game pitcher. Since 1993 he's been consistently great. But now he's nearing 41, and his starts can be erratic. In Game 2 of the ALCS against Cleveland, he was lit up for five runs on nine hits in just 4 2/3 innings. It was ugly.

This is an important game for the Red Sox, as it is for the Rockies. If the Sox win, they can go into Colorado knowing they can close it out at Coors Field. Even if they win just one of three games there, they'll be in the driver's seat and will have to win just one of the final two games at Fenway. Schilling can set up an eventual World Series title with another big performance tonight.

Schilling's start is also important because Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will be going for the Sox in Game 3, has a 7.62 ERA in September and October. He, too, is unpredictable. But if you had to place a bet, at this point you wouldn't count on him to be solid or reliable.

And then there's the fact that Tim Wakefield was left off the World Series roster due to an ailing shoulder. He's been dealing with the problem since the end of the season and was also kept off the roster for the first-round series against the Angels. But one has to wonder if the shoulder is really the issue, or if it's related to the fact that the knuckleball probably won't fare well in the cold, thin, October air at Denver's mile-high altitude? Wakefield had a 4.76 ERA this season. That could be crippling in Denver. And he's only pitched once since September 29, when he allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Indians in Game 4 of the ALCS.

As a result, the Red Sox have yet to announce their Game 4 starter. However, Jon Lester threw four simulated innings on Tuesday, likely in anticipation of making that start in Colorado. But you can't help but wonder if the Sox would start Beckett on three days rest in Game 4. It likely depends on how the first three games go. Even if Matsuzaka and Lester were to lose their starts in Colorado, Beckett would be slated to go in Game 5. That would set up Schilling to pitch yet another series-clinching game, this time at Fenway.

All of this illustrates why Schilling's start tonight is so important to the Red Sox. And, of course, this could be his final start in a Boston uniform. If it is, going out with a bang in front of the Fenway faithful, who've lionized him since he arrived four years ago, would be a fitting farewell. And a strong performance would only further cement his legend as one of the game's all-time greatest post-season pitchers.

One way or the other, the Red Sox are the superior team -- with the tougher schedule, in the tougher league, with the tougher lineups -- and should win this Series in six games.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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